NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — The military tank that had stood at the entrance to this Mexican border city since 2008 was not here on Christmas Eve. Neither was the machine gun turret that pointed down this gritty town’s main street.
But the masked soldiers remained. Residents say it is a sign that little law enforcement appears to exist, except for the military officers who patrol the streets.
That could change, however, under policies announced by Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s newly inaugurated president.
Mr. Peña Nieto’s six-point program includes better government planning; increased intergovernmental coordination; protection of human rights; more social investments and crime-prevention programs; additional evaluation of government programs; and institution building.
It also proposes a 10,000-member force to secure municipalities and states where law enforcement is powerless against organized crime. The administration has said it will focus on street gangs and criminals employed by the cartels, a shift from former President Felipe Calderón’s emphasis on eliminating top drug trafficking bosses.
Eric L. Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, praised the new program’s call for better coordination. Under the leadership of Mr. Calderón, he said, agencies were too independent of one another.
“There was not good coordination with the Secretaría de Gobernación, and there was not good coordination with the military,” Mr. Olson said, referring to Mexico’s internal affairs agency, also known as Segob. The risk now, he added, is the potential to recreate the same bureaucracy.
“It could also mean you have a ministry like Segob that’s so powerful that it’s not very accountable or transparent,” he said. But the emphasis on coordination is positive, he added, and the investment in social programs has contributed to improvements.
Mr. Calderón’s tenure included what some analysts call one of the worst human rights crises in Mexico: tens of thousands died in drug violence, and most of the crimes went unsolved. But his war on the cartels yielded some positive results. In Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, the number of homicides could reach about 800 by the end of 2012, a dramatic decrease from the estimated 2,100 in 2011 and the more than 3,600 in 2010.
A main reason is that the Sinaloa organization has weakened the rival Juárez cartel. But Mr. Olson said the federal government also deserved some credit.
“I think there is better local coordination with the state and the municipality,” he said. “Prosecutions are up, and the federal government’s social investment programs are better targeted and had some impact.”
Mr. Peña Nieto’s plan has not yet elicited a response from American lawmakers. But some analysts are expressing concerns about the administration’s focus on street criminals as opposed to cartel bosses.
Phil Jordan, who was director of the El Paso Intelligence Center during his time as a special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dallas division, said the plan would allow the cartel bosses to remain untouched because lower-level employees are always available.
“It takes longer to create the head of an organization,” he said. “But trying to get rid of street dealers is like trying to get rid of rabbits in the desert.”
Officials here and in the United States will probably dissect Mr. Peña Nieto’s proposals for some time. And there are those who doubt results will come soon.
“The problems will remain the same,” said Antonio Rojas, a mechanic who has lived in Nuevo Laredo since 1975. “That’s especially true if the garbage in the United States — the drug buying and gun running — continues.”
[Pic: A man enjoyed Christmas Eve with his niece in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where homicides fell by more than 75 percent since 2010.]
By JULIÁN AGUILAR, New York Times
Published: December 29, 2012
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In Mexico, a New Approach to Stanching Drug Violence