MEXICO CITY — The recent changes ordered by new President Enrique Peña Nieto to Mexico’s anti-narcotics partnership with the United States have produced markedly different reactions here and in Washington, underscoring what appear to be diverging perceptions of the drug war’s goals and the costs of fighting it.
Peña Nieto’s decision to limit the ability of American agents to operate in Mexico has been met with dismay by U.S. law enforcement agencies, which left a heavy footprint under the previous administration of Felipe Calderon. They warn that intelligence sharing will suffer if they can no longer choose which Mexican force — the army, navy or federal police — to give sensitive information to; they’ve been instructed to now funnel everything through Mexico’s Interior Ministry instead.
The agents also caution that the personal relationships developed under Calderon will fray if they are no longer welcome to work side by side with trusted partners at sites such as the joint command centers where Americans helped spy on Mexican narcotics traffickers and direct operations against them.
Yet here on the southern side of the fight, where gangland violence has taken 60,000 to 90,000 lives in the past six years, there is little surprise that Peña Nieto would move to reformat the relationship. It is a change that has been coming for a long time.
Standing opposite President Obama at a news conference here May 2 during the U.S. president’s recent visit, Peña Nieto insisted that drug war cooperation would remain robust but that Mexico wants a more “efficient” strategy.
“Let me say it very clearly,” he said. “Under this new strategy, we’re going to order things up. We’re going to make it institutional. The channels will be very clear. We’re going to use one single channel in order to be more efficient, to attain better results.”
It is the meaning of “better results” that the two countries increasingly differ on.
Seizing dope and smashing cartels were the shared goals for Mexico and the United States under Calderon. He allowed U.S. agencies unprecedented latitude to gather intelligence on drug cartel suspects and decide which Mexican security forces were trustworthy and effective enough to share it with. To safeguard against the gangsters’ corrupting powers, the Americans developed “vetted” units of elite drug-war fighters, relying heavily on Mexico’s marines to be a lethal strike force against high-level targets.
But the flow of drugs north and the death toll in Mexico remained virtually undiminished as fallen mafia capos were quickly replaced by new leaders and the troubles of the border region spread south.
Frustrated Mexicans were looking for a change, and on the campaign stump last year and since taking office in December, Peña Nieto pledged that “reducing violence” would become his overarching security goal. In private, his aides characterized the Calderon years as a free-for-all that put tens of thousands of troops on the streets but didn’t make Mexico safer.