TAMPICO, Mexico — The front-runner in Mexico’s presidential contest, Enrique Peña Nieto, named Colombia’s top crime fighter, Gen. Oscar Naranjo, as his chief security adviser to help draft a new strategy to take on Mexico’s powerful drug cartels.
Known for his role in bringing down Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, Naranjo has a long history of close collaboration with U.S. counter-narcotics officials. Coming two weeks before Mexico’s July 1 presidential vote, his new role appears to signal that Peña Nieto, if elected, would continue to pursue cartel leaders and partner with U.S. agents, say senior American officials with knowledge of the appointment.
Bringing into his inner circle the former chief of the Colombian National Police — and a foreigner close to the Americans — is an unusual move. It may indicate that Peña Nieto does not plan to stray too far from the crime-fighting alliance established between Mexico and the United States under President Felipe Calderon.
While Naranjo was in charge of Colombia’s fight against cartels, Washington poured billions of dollars in equipment and training into the country to help create paramilitary police that targeted both rebel forces and criminal mafias.
“What Colombia and Mexico have in common is that the narcos use terrorism, but there are two distinct realities, and the lessons of Colombia are not the only lessons,” said Naranjo in an interview with The Washington Post.
Asked what he would specifically recommend against the cartels, Naranjo said: “I would attack their finances more aggressively. I would do it with more force, speed and efficiency.”
Naranjo said he would not direct Mexican forces in day-to-day operations.
Drawing comparisons to U.S. prohibition-era crime buster Eliot Ness, Naranjo has been at the center of Colombia’s war against drug cartels for more than a generation. In 1993, he played a key role in the operation that led to the killing of Medellin cartel boss Escobar, Colombia’s most wanted man. Naranjo later spearheaded the operation that also dismantled the powerful Cali cartel.
Under Naranjo, the Colombian National Police grew to 170,000 members and is, in many ways, more like a paramilitary force. It has personnel in cities who perform like beat police anywhere. But the force also deploys commando units to stage helicopter raids with heavy weapons and wage jungle warfare against leftist insurgent groups.
Peña Nieto continues to hold a substantial lead in most polls two weeks before the election. He is the standard-bearer of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that ruled Mexico for more than 70 years and was hounded by charges of coercion and corruption until it lost the president’s office in 2000.
Peña Nieto has spoken only in broad terms about his security strategy, saying he would marshall resources to fight crimes that hurts ordinary Mexicans — murder, extortion, kidnapping and robbery.
In several interviews, he suggested that arresting cartel leaders and seizing drug caches would be secondary.
That attitude has caused some U.S. law enforcement agencies and members in Congress to question his commitment to the fight against organized crime, and it has led his Mexican rivals to assert that under Peña Nieto, the PRI and its governors would slip into a more accommodating relationship with the crime mafias, especially those like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, which has a reputation for focusing more on drug trafficking and less on crimes against civilians.
Peña Nieto advisers said Naranjo would immediately begin to assist the campaign and would become the principal architect on the strategy against drug violence if the election goes their way.
“It is important to show to the United States and the rest of Latin America we are 200 percent committed to the fight against organized crime,” said a top adviser to Peña Nieto, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We are bringing in the best cop in the world to help us, an outsider who can offer new perspectives, who has a proven record of success.”
Naranjo, the son of a former head of the national police, worked closely with Washington’s intelligence services to build hundreds of cases that led to extraditions of Colombian drug figures.
He has pushed his government to approach transnational crime syndicates with collective strength and in speeches says that a key is the sharing of better intelligence. Mexico’s intelligence gathering is seen as especially weak and heavily reliant on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for leads.
Naranjo recently announced that he will also serve as an external security adviser for the Inter-American Development Bank.
Tall, urbane and soft-spoken, Naranjo has not been free of scandal. His reputation has been shaken by the arrests of police officers linked to corruption scandals. And in 2006, his younger brother, Juan David Naranjo, was arrested in Germany and accused of having been a cog in a European cocaine-smuggling ring, an episode the former general has said was deeply painful to him.
Correspondent Juan Forero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.