Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico
By most quantifiable measures, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has enjoyed significant success in addressing Mexico’s drug violence problem since he took office in December 2012. According to a recent study from the University of San Diego, the country’s homicide rate fell by 15 percent in 2013 following a four-year spike. Violence is also down at the provincial level, with declining homicide rates in cartel hotspots like Ciudad Juarez and Acapulco. Of the 122 cartel suspects originally listed on the country’s most-wanted list at the beginning of 2013, nearly 60 percent have been captured or killed in the past year. Tourism numbers are subsequently looking rosier by the month.
Recent developments, however, threaten to rain on Peña Nieto’s parade. Late last month, reports emerged from the southern province of Guerrero concerning the killing of half a dozen students during a clash with local police in the town of Iguala as well as the subsequent disappearance of 43 more students. While the circumstances of the disappearances and of the shooting remain hazy, the flight of the town’s mayor and police chief—both of whom have been linked for years with cartel members—makes it clear that there was a failure stemming from a level well above the local police department.
Across the country, regular citizens are beginning to arrive at the same conclusion. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Mexico last week in anger over not only this particularly horrific incident, but also the general culture of police impunity and rampant collusion among police officers and cartel members. This illicit behavior has persisted even as federal police have recorded numerous highly visible “successes” against notorious cartel leaders over the past several years.
Certainly, it is difficult to dispute the success that Peña Nieto has had in dismantling various criminal organizations from the top down. However, such a strategy does little to address the local problems that lead to tragic incidents like the killings in Iguala on September 25. These problems—against which Mexicans across the country are protesting—are systemic, and require comprehensive solutions. The Peña Nieto administration cannot simply entrust the military and federal police with law enforcement duties in some areas while letting others languish under the rule of corrupt leaders and local police forces.
While solving societal problems from the bottom up is far more costly and difficult than the other way around, it is the only way that Mexico can hope to put an end to its history of corruption. Those who represent the government at the local level must be held accountable to the law through strict screening and regular performance reviews. Greater incentives must be provided to those in government as compensation for the risks they take in opposing the cartels. Likewise, harsher punishment for officials convicted of colluding with criminals must become the norm.
Such procedures, if implemented on a national scale, would not only reduce corruption levels, but would also go a long way towards restoring the people’s trust in their local police—a trust that has been shattered by the killings in Iguala and by similar incidents in the past several years.