Mexico’s new president has vowed repeatedly to demilitarise the campaign against drug cartels, but thousands of combat troops likely will remain in the field for years to come, spearheaded by US-favoured naval infantry.
Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office on December 1, assured the country this month that the army and the navy will be pulled out as soon as civilian police — including a new federal quasi-military force — are capable of taking on the gangs.
His predecessor as president, the conservative Felipe Calderon, said much the same thing through his six years in power, when drug violence claimed over 60,000 lives.
Now, the effort many critics labelled “Calderon’s War” belongs squarely to Pena Nieto and he has few immediate alternatives to the military campaign. “Under my command Mexico’s armed forces will continue being a factor of stability and social confidence,” Pena Nieto said last week. “Their mission is to achieve a Mexico at peace.”
He already has moved to dismantle the controversial Public Security Ministry and transfer its 36,000-member federal police force to the Interior Ministry, a bulwark of his Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71-year hold on power in the 20th century.
Mexico’s once-feared intelligence service, which was gutted in the dozen years of rule by Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, is returning to the Interior Ministry too.
Yet a new militarised national police force proposed by Pena Nieto and modelled on France’s gendarmerie, is likely to take months, if not years, to set up. That leaves the navy’s marines as the most trusted force in the fight against organised crime.
Increasingly toward the end of Calderon’s term, it was the navy that won plaudits for the government crackdown on the drug gangs, and Pena Nieto appears to have taken note.
The new president appointed Admiral Vidal Soberon as navy secretary, a move that breaks tradition and apparently signals his desire to keep marines at the forefront of the fight.
Soberon, 53, a US-trained and newly minted three-star admiral, was top aide to his predecessor when the navy’s closer ties with Washington were forged. His promotion went over the heads of many senior officers, flouting the chain of command.
“His promotion is a positive step forward,” said US Representative Mike McCaul, a Republican from Texas and incoming chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “The Mexican navy is probably the No 1 enemy of the drug cartels.”
Until its dramatic build-up during the crackdown on drug cartels by Calderon, Mexico’s navy had been long been in the shadow of the far larger, and more insular, army.
However, some worry that continued exposure to the cartels in their urban strongholds could corrupt the navy, a fate that has befallen police forces across the country and, to a lesser extent, the army.
Once tasked with little more than guarding tourist beaches and navy bases, the ranks of the marines have swelled by 80 per cent to 18,000 during Calderon’s presidency. They have been deployed along the southern and northern borders, both coasts, and deep into the interior. “Sadly, many public security institutions, above all at the municipal and state level, have been penetrated by organised crime,” said Vice- Admiral Fernando Castanon, commander of the naval zone on the Caribbean coast and the border with Belize.
“It doesn’t interest us to be operating in Zacatecas or Coahuila,” Castanon said, referring to two states where the marines have waged full-scale combat against the notorious Zetas cartel in the past few years. “But at this moment the country needs it. The navy is trying to fill that void.” Under Calderon, Mexico built a tighter alliance with US military and law enforcement agencies to take on the gangs.
Boasting one of Mexico’s most respected intelligence agencies, a small but effective commando force and less insular culture, the navy proved a good fit for the tie-up. “There’s no question the navy has gained considerable prestige from this — way beyond their size,” said US political scientist Roderic Camp, a specialist on Mexico’s military.
By Dudley Althaus
Oman Daily Observer, Monday December 17th 2012. [Picture: Reuters]
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