Mexico’s president-elect wants close security ties with U.S., with limits

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Mexico's president-elect, Enrique Pena Nieto, sits down with the Post's William Booth and Nick Miroff to discuss a Human Rights Watch report that describes 230 documented cases of torture or murder by Mexican soldiers and police, and the zero arrests and convictions that followed. The president-elect says security forces who commit human rights violations will face prosecution. (William Booth, Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

The president-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, said in an interview Thursday that he wants to expand his country’s drug-war partnership with the United States but that he would not support the presence of armed American agents in Mexico.

Peña Nieto said he would consider hosting U.S. military instructors on Mexican soil, but in a training capacity only, to help his soldiers and marines benefit from U.S. counterinsurgency tactics learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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He also approves of the continuation of flights by U.S. surveillance drones over Mexico to gather intelligence on drug trafficking, but future missions would be run by Mexico with U.S. assistance and technology, he said.

“Without a doubt, I am committed to having an intense, close relationship of effective collaboration measured by results,” Peña Nieto said in an interview that focused on Mexico’s violent struggle with transnational crime organizations.

But he was clear that he did not endorse the two countries pursing the kind of joint armed counternarcotics operations carried out by U.S. forces in Colombia and Central America.

Mexican laws should be enforced by Mexicans, Peña Nieto said.

“It is just as if I asked you: Should our police operate on the other side of the border? No. That would not be allowed by U.S. law. Our situation is the same,” he said.

Peña Nieto is the projected winner of Sunday’s presidential election, with final results due this weekend. His apparent victory restores to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ran Mexico for more than 70 years before its ouster in 2000.

The president-elect was interviewed at the J.W. Marriott Hotel at the edge of Mexico City, where international companies have erected a canyon of glass corporate towers. He spoke in Spanish, seated in front of a PRI banner that read “Mexico Unites Us.”

Peña Nieto has already faced wariness from U.S. lawmakers, who fear that he will pull back from the drug fight and return to the ways of his PRI forebears, notorious for accommodating drug smugglers to preserve public order.

He has aggressively pushed back against those allegations. But he said he would change the way success is measured in the drug war in Mexico.

Using what standard, he was asked.

“Homicides,” Peña Nieto said.

After he assumes office in December, the new president will no longer judge success simply by the numbers of drug kingpins captured or killed, or the bricks of cocaine seized, he said — metrics popular with the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Congress.

Mexico has had more than 60,000 drug-related killings since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and sent the army into the streets.

By setting Mexico’s death toll as a primary measure of success, the president-elect sought to create a clear contrast with Calderón, who created a Most Wanted list and kept a running tally of kingpins he’d knocked off.

But drugs and drug lords have proved to be renewable resources in Mexico, and by making homicide reduction the center of his plan, Peña Nieto seems to be putting the fight back on Mexican terms, with the statistic that matters most to the Mexican public.

Peña Nieto repeated several times that the fight against crime needed to be “effective, with results.”

“We should set measurable objectives over a determined period of time that are agreed by both governments,” he said.

Last month, Peña Nieto announced that the former chief of the Colombian National Police, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, will become his top security adviser. Peña Nieto called Naranjo “the world’s best cop.”

Naranjo is close to the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies, and his appointment was seen as a signal that Peña Nieto would remain a solid partner.

In Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala and other parts of the region, American agents from the DEA and other agencies work side by side with local police and military to combat drug trafficking, gathering intelligence and staging strikes in U.S. helicopters.

But Mexico has long resisted joint operations, and Peña Nieto said they would violate Mexican sovereignty.

“I think there should be an exchange of technology, of intelligence, but I insist there should be respect for the constitutions of both countries,” he said.

While U.S. diplomats often highlight the $1.6 billion in drug-fighting aid provided to Mexico since 2008 — the delivery of Black Hawk helicopters or the role retired FBI agents play as instructors at Mexican police academies — the Mexican government prefers to play down the assistance.

Mexican military officers go north to the United States for training, but Mexico has never acknowledged any training taking place here.

“It could take place on either side” of the border, Peña Nieto said. “It’s not an issue of sovereignty.”

Memories are long here of the 19th-century wars and U.S. military incursions that transferred huge swaths of Mexican territory into American hands. There are no U.S. military bases in Mexico, and American law enforcement agents in the country are not allowed to carry weapons, even for personal protection.

In recent years, Calderón has often criticized the United States as the world’s most voracious drug consumer and complained that weapons smuggled south are stoking the violence.

Peña Nieto declined to blame U.S. guns. “We’re not trying to change the laws of the United States,” he said. “I respect the laws of the United States as defined by the American people.”

“But I am in favor of better gun-trafficking enforcement. Just as we’ve seen more control over the movement of migrants” across the border, Peña Nieto said.

To deal with Mexico’s notoriously corrupt municipal police forces — with their underpaid, outgunned officers — Peña Nieto proposes to eliminate them outright.

Instead, he would create a single police force in each of Mexico’s 31 states whose members would fight crime alongside an expanded force of federal police.

The military would be pulled back to the barracks and would be replaced by a new paramilitary-style national “gendarmerie” of 40,000 officers under civilian command.

“This is a plan that is still being developed,” he said.

 
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