Yesterday, I wrote about the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) report last month ranking Mexico as second-most deadly nation on Earth (see “A Dubious Distinction,” which ran in this space on May 8).
According to the IISS, there were nearly 23,000 intentional homicides in Mexico last year, and most of those deaths were linked to Mexico’s drug cartels.
The institute’s findings were sorely contested by both the Mexican Interior and Foreign Relations Secretariats, which declared that the London-based think tank used “unclear methodologies” and that its conclusions lacked “support in regard to the situation in Mexico.”
But no matter how you cut it, there is no denying that violence (including and maybe especially drug violence) is on the rise in Mexico.
According to the Enrique Peña Nieto administration’s own statistics, the first two months of 2017 were the most deadly in two decades, and in January alone, 1,938 people were murdered, putting the year on track to be the deadliest ever.
In my column yesterday, I pointed out that instead of arguing over numbers and methodology, the Mexican government needs to take serious action to protect its citizens against violence, both cartel-inspired and otherwise.
And what better way to do that than to draw on the president’s own words and recommendations for stopping drug-related violence in Mexico?
Back in June 2012, then-presidential candidate Peña Nieto published an article in the Christian Science Monitor outlining his own five-step proposal for reducing drug-linked and other violence in Mexico.
In that proposal, Peña Nieto said that the first and most important measure was to “level the playing field” for displaced and unemployed youth by addressing the country’s “unacceptable poverty and inequality rates.
By “acting aggressively” to introduce universal healthcare and investing heavily in education, Mexico could allow its “youth to aspire for better-paid jobs and find alternatives to criminality.”
In 2012, when his article was written, 42 percent of Mexico’s total population was living below the international poverty line, according to the World Bank.
In the next two years, under the administration of Peña Nieto, Mexico’s poverty rate soared to 46.2 percent.
And according to the international confederation of non-governmental organizations Oxfam, “while the wealth of Mexican multimillionaires was multiplied by five” during that period, despite an ambitious government program to revamp the education system, 48 percent of state schools still have no access to sewage, 31 percent have no drinking water, 13 percent have no bathrooms or toilets and 11 percent have no access to electricity.
So while many Latin American countries have made significant strides in reducing their level of poverty, Mexico’s has consistently continued to increase, according to international sources.
(Miraculously, though, according to Mexican sources, poverty in the country diminished dramatically in 2016, thanks to a little-publicized change in the national methodology for measuring household earnings, but, then, that’s a whole other column).
Getting back to Peña Nieto’s proposals for reducing drug violence in Mexico, his second recommendation was to reform the legal system in order to “fight impunity and corruption by expediting the judicial process.”
“It is imperative to give individuals and companies confidence in our legal system, which is now slow, unorganized and unable to deliver justice impartially,” he wrote.
On this front, credit is due to the Mexican president.
Thanks to sweeping changes in the judicial system, including an assumption of innocence and the practice of public oral testimonies, most Mexicans now have far more trust in the country’s legal processes than five years ago.
But while the changes have certainly made the judicial system more transparent and placed new restrictions on police and prosecutor interrogations, rampant allegations of abuse and even torture by government officials persist.
Moreover, according to the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico report, issued last month, “the new system has not eliminated all of Mexico’s criminal-justice problems,” and most citizens and legal-system employees “still do not have full confidence in the system of justice.”
Peña Nieto’s third recommendation for stopping drug-related violence in Mexico was to professionalize the country’s police forces.
“In order to fight corruption, we need to unify the police forces from the municipalities and regional state governments, increase the use of intelligence, and create an inter-agency coordination plan that will guarantee the concerted efforts among various security organizations,” he said.
Last fall, Peña Nieto launched a scheme to combat violence in Mexico’s 50 most violent cities through the use of new technologies, interagency coordination and a countrywide emergency phone service.
It is too early to evaluate the effects of that plan, but, hopefully, it will help to reduce the national incidence of the-right-hand-doesn’t-know-what-the-left-hand-is-doing syndrome which has seriously hampered law enforcement in the past.
As his fourth recommendation for culling drug violence in Mexico, Peña Nieto said he would “no longer tackle issues of national security merely through diplomatic advances.”
“We have been using foreign affairs ministries to address security issues, but this practice is outdated,” he wrote.
“It’s time to assign the handling of regional security to national organizations and expert institutions … We need to bring about more efficient cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing and joint information gathering, particularly among the main drug-producing and drug-consuming nations in the region.”
To that rather contradictory statement, Peña Nieto added his fifth and final recommendation, which called for a “joint border partnership with the United States and Canada.”
“In an effort to strengthen the ties with our regional allies, we need to launch a more comprehensive partnership between Canada, the United States and Mexico that goes beyond security,” he said.
“It is time for a renewed push for more integration on transportation, education and infrastructure.”
In other words, rev up NAFTA to integrate trilateral cooperation in all fields.
“Developing a joint border-management agency working under harmonized customs rules will help promote trade and commerce,” he continued.
“By increasing productivity and becoming more competitive, we will be able to offer better opportunities and improve the standard of living for all Mexicans. This is the Mexico I aspire for: a safe country that spurs creativity and innovation, and attracts investment.”
And despite the ongoing mudslinging fest between Peña Nieto and U.S. President Donald J. Trump over migrants and trade balances, the two countries have continued to revitalize their mutual commitment to fighting the cross-border smuggling of drugs, arms and money.
When it comes to stopping violence, Mexico cannot do it alone, which is why the administration may pay political lip service to Trump-bashing and Washington-hating, but behind the scenes, it is working closely with the United States and other international partners to coordinate efforts to stop the illicit drug trade.
Together, the two countries are working together to halt narcotics and human traffickers, arms smugglers and money launderers, as well as to counter corruption and impunity, all of which play a key role in the surging murder rate.
Through bilateral coordinated efforts born out of the $2.3 billion Merida initiative, both Mexico and the United States are striving for a safer and more secure environment for all their citizens.
Thanks to that initiative, there are more than 90 new capacity-building programs now underway in Mexico.
It would be a tragedy for both countries if disparaging political rhetoric were to compromise those programs.
To say that the Peña Nieto administration hasn’t tried to address the mounting violence in Mexico would be both untrue and unfair.
But, unfortunately, what he and his government are doing is not enough.
Stopping violence in Mexico needs to be Peña Nieto’s top priority during his last year and a half in office.
Maybe it’s time he review his own Christian Science Monitor article on how to stop drug-related murders in Mexico.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].