These perp-walks often exhibited suspects with fat lips, facial bruises and other signs of rough treatment by authorities.
But if the spectacle was used by Calderon and his predecessors to show the public they were winning the war, Peña Nieto’s decision to end it is meant to signal a new approach.
Officials in his administration say the sight of suspects smirking defiantly as authorities read aloud their criminal aliases — monikers like “Tweety Bird,” “Barbie” and “The Moustache” — sent the wrong message, especially since many later go free for lack of evidence.
Peña Nieto’s government says it wants to focus on securing criminal convictions and protecting judicial integrity, not making Mexico’s bad guys into TV personalities.
‘Walking a fine line’
Still, the government’s effort to shift the public conversation away from drug violence is a risky one, analysts say, given the lingering perception that Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was corrupt and soft on the cartels when it ran Mexico for much of the 20th century.
Peña Nieto assures U.S. officials he will press on with the drug fight and forge ahead with implementation of the $2 billion security assistance package from Washington known as the Merida Initiative.
But he has also sent the message that his administration wants its relationship with the United States to be about more than drugs, said Eric Olson, a Mexico scholar at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“The question is: In doing that, does the urgency of dealing with security issues fall off the agenda?” Olson said. “Or the urgency of judicial reform, modernizing the police and reforming the prison system?”
“He’s walking a fine line,” he said.
The more discreet violence is giving the new administration a chance to talk publicly about other issues — something that isn’t possible when authorities are busy cleaning up after a mass murder or political assassination.
According to tallies by the Mexican media organization Milenio, the number of drug-related homicides in December 2012 — Peña Nieto’s first month in office — was actually higher than during the same month in previous years.
The Mexican government no longer releases its own body count estimate. But Peña Nieto insisted during his presidential campaign his success should be judged according to whether he’s able to slow the pace of the killings.
It’s a goal that leaves him boxed in, since the reforms he has proposed — including a massive reorganization of state-level and federal police forces — will take years to implement, said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official who is now a security analyst at the think tank Mexico Evalua.
“If he doesn’t bring down violence, he fails,” Hope said. “But nothing that he has proposed will do that in the short term.”
And if the cartels commit another huge massacre or deadly ambush on federal forces, Peña Nieto may be forced to turn his attention back toward the fight.
“There’s more availability of drugs and more availability of guns, and if that doesn’t change, we’ll continue to see the same trends,” said Alberto Islas, a security expert at the consulting firm Risk Evaluation.
Relief in some areas
For now though, the new president seems to have some breathing room, partly the result of quieter times in the big border cities that have long been red zones, such as Tijuana and shell-shocked Ciudad Juarez, where the murder rate has dropped nearly 80 percent since 2010, when more than 3,100 were killed.
Local authorities in those cities say their police reforms are paying off and that they have purged their ranks of corrupt officers. Federal forces say they’ve weakened the cartels by taking out many of their top leaders.
But analysts say the violence has simply moved elsewhere, to new flash points in central-northern Mexican cities, like Torreon, that are hundreds of miles south of the border but strategic for control over lucrative smuggling routes.
“There may be a perception, on a national level, that security has improved. But not here,” said Javier Garza, editor of the newspaper El Siglo de Torreon.
It’s one of the places where Mexico’s two most powerful cartels are crashing into each other. The Sinaloa Cartel controls much of western Mexico and the Pacific. The Zetas dominate the country’s eastern states and the Gulf Coast.
Torreon had 114 murders in December 2012, Garza said, its second-worst month for the year. In 2012, nearly 1,100 people were slain in the city, a record.
Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.