MEXICO CITY — The Colombian general who helped bring down drug kingpin Pablo Escobar will turn his expertise to Mexico’s drug war if the presidential front-runner wins next month’s election.
Candidate Enrique Pena Nieto announced Thursday night that he will appoint retired Gen. Oscar Naranjo as an adviser, calling Colombia an example of success in drug war strategy.
Naranjo told The Associated Press in an earlier interview that he had been approached by the campaign, adding Thursday that he would “have no operative role or place in the government hierarchy.”
Pena Nieto repeated his pledge to reduce violent crime affecting everyday Mexicans in a drug war that has taken more than 47,000 lives since 2006, a contrast to President Felipe Calderon’s strategy of going after drug kingpins.
Analysts have said Pena Nieto’s promised strategy could mean that drug dealers who conduct their businesses discreetly will be left alone. But Naranjo, standing with Pena Nieto at a news conference, said all cartels would be treated equally.
“There can’t be inequalities in the treatment of criminals. A criminal is a criminal,” he said.
Naranjo, 55, is widely respected in the region for playing a central role in dismantling Colombia’s major drug trafficking organizations during a 36-year police career, in close coordination with U.S. drug and intelligence agents. He has been praised by U.S. officials for a strategy that Washington holds up as a model for other Latin American countries’ fights against traffickers.
The appointment is seen as a move by Pena Nieto to show his commitment to battling drug cartels, even as his rivals say his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has negotiated or even colluded with crime gangs in various states and during its 71-year hold on the presidency. That includes Calderon’s National Action Party, whose candidate Josefina Vazquez is running in third in most polls.
The naming of Naranjo also sends a message that Pena Nieto will maintain a close relationship with U.S. law enforcement that was established under Calderon, whom Pena Nieto has accused of mismanaging the drug war since he escalated the government’s attack on cartels in 2006. Naranjo, who retired Tuesday, has been working as a consultant in the region, including for the current administration of Calderon.
As Colombia’s police director since 2007, Naranjo succeeded in capturing or forcing the surrender of all but one of the country’s known drug kingpins. He long worked closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and has been working with senior Mexican law enforcement and judicial officials in recent years.
Naranjo is also the chief architect of Colombia’s criminal intelligence apparatus, which he has employed with considerable effectiveness against Colombia’s rebels.
He was intelligence chief of the “Bloque de Busqueda,” a special police task force that eventually tracked down and killed Escobar in December 1993. His detectives also gathered key intelligence that led to the killings of two of the three senior leftist rebel leaders slain in Colombia since 2008.
Analysts say Colombia’s police have achieved far less on other fronts under Naranjo, however.
Kidnapping and murder are down dramatically, but criminal bands continue to thrive in the provinces, running drugs, extorting, “taxing” illegal gold mining. Colombia also remains the world’s most deadly nation for trade union organizers.
Pena Nieto is ahead by double digits in most polls. If he wins the July 1 election, he will regain the presidency for the PRI for the first time since it was voted out in 2000.
Naranjo told the AP he plans to divide his time between Mexico and Washington, D.C., beginning next month.
He said that he had accepted a part-time job as an external consultant on security policy in the Americas for the Inter-American Development Bank and that Monterrey Technology University had offered him a position teaching at its Mexico City campus.
By Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press, Thursday, June 14, 8:19 PM
Top cop who took down Colombia’s cocaine cartels agrees to advise Mexico on drug war