Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party has assumed the Mexican presidency amid a flurry of protests against the party, whose previous 70-year rule defined the country’s authoritarian past.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine that the new president’s term could be worse than the unmitigated disaster of his predecessor’s, which was marked by a dramatic militarization of Mexico’s drug war, widespread human rights abuses, and tens of thousands of deaths. Aware of pervasive war weariness in Mexico, Peña Nieto has offered mild improvements over outgoing President Felipe Calderón’s approach to drug violence.
According to CNN, the new president “has pledged to focus more on reducing violence and less on catching cartel leaders and blocking drugs from reaching the United States,” a policy that could reduce the violence associated with the power vacuums left by killed or captured kingpins. More recently, a top Peña Nieto advisor also intimated that the legalization of marijuana use in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington could augur changes in Mexican drug policy as well. Ostensibly, these are positive developments.
But Peña Nieto has to do a better job of ensuring that human rights violators (particularly in the military) are held accountable for their actions—especially since he has already announced that the military will continue be a part of Mexico’s law enforcement apparatus for the foreseeable future, disappointing many human rights activists. Ominously, he has also advocated for a large paramilitary force to combat the country’s drug violence—a troubling signal in a region where such groups don’t exactly have a track record of prudence or evenhandedness. And practically speaking, getting a force like that together will not happen quickly, again reinforcing the notion that the Mexican military will be policing the streets for the foreseeable future. It’s a bad idea.
Peña Nieto would be wise to heed the calls for a change in security policy. That could start with more modest efforts at police reform; a divided congress does not justify six more years of gridlock. Small success on this front could shake up Mexican politics and send the message that the new president is more of a reformist than his critics—and there are many—would have believed. Daniel Sabet has argued that efforts at police reform should focus on “professionalization,” emphasizing “merit pay, rigorous selection, training, and accountability.”
Stratfor analyst Scott Stewart has added that such reforms should not lose sight of other “profound economic, sociological and cultural issues.” Poverty, after all, gives people a strong incentive to join gangs and get involved with drug trafficking in the first place. Latin America is still the most equal region in the world, and economic disparities in Mexico are worse than the regional average. And extending well beyond the country’s police force, Mexico’s culture of corruption is another aspect of this dilemma that cannot be neglected. Although the Obama administration has largely ignored Latin America, Washington still wields considerable influence in the region. Since significant changes in U.S. drug policy in the next four years appear unlikely (at least at the federal level), President Obama must pursue other options to deal with drug violence and state-sponsored indiscretions in places like Mexico.
Since the day he said he would close Guantánamo Bay, Obama has been a human-rights disappointment himself. Drone strikes and other troubling “counterterrorism” policies probably will not change during his second term. Nevertheless, Obama has a chance to get Mexico right by advocating for policy changes and pressuring Mexico’s incoming president on human rights.
The administration should immediately put a hold on funds from the Mérida Initiative, but this is not enough. More importantly, Washington should apply sustained diplomatic pressure on Peña Nieto to reconsider the widespread deployment of the military on Mexico’s bloody streets (although Washington would perhaps first have to come around to this view itself). There are good reasons to be cynical about the return of the PRI. Even so, when it comes to human rights in Mexico, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Peña Nieto should act upon the lessons learned during Calderón’s presidency. A great place to start would be putting the military back where it belongs—in the barracks.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy In Focus.