In Mexico, new focus on crime

Army and federal police stand near five bodies lying face down in an area known as El Infiernillo, near Acapulco, Mexico, on Friday. The region has been hard hit by violence as drug gangs battle for control of the region. BERNANDINO HERNANDEZ / Associated Press
Army and federal police stand near five bodies lying face down in an area known as El Infiernillo, near Acapulco, Mexico, on Friday. The region has been hard hit by violence as drug gangs battle for control of the region. BERNANDINO HERNANDEZ / Associated Press

Nabbing drug lords would not be priority.

Posted: May 26, 2012

MEXICO CITY - Shortly after sunrise last month in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, police found 14 butchered bodies in a van outside city hall, a salvo in a seesawing battle of horrors between Mexico's two most powerful drug cartels.

Soon after, nine people were hanged from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. Fourteen heads were left in coolers outside city hall. Eighteen mutilated bodies were dumped by a scenic lake in western Mexico. The decapitated bodies of 49 people were dumped outside a small town 75 miles from the U.S. border.

The man who appears likely to become Mexico's next president says he can ease the waves of violence consuming the country by changing the focus of its six-year offensive against organized crime.

Mexico's current administration has targeted the top ranks of the country's drug cartels, deploying thousands of troops to capture crime kingpins and seize their drugs and weapons, often in close coordination with the United States. It is not uncommon for President Felipe Calderon's administration to boast of its success in arresting many of the country's most-wanted men.

Enrique Pena Nieto, who has a double-digit lead five weeks before the July 1 election, says his top security priority will not be arresting the leaders of the organizations that move hundreds of millions of dollars of narcotics each year into the United States. Instead, he and his advisers say, they will focus resources on reducing homicide, kidnapping and extortion - the crimes that do the most damage to the greatest number of Mexicans - by flooding police and troops into towns and cities with the highest rates of violent crime.

"This doesn't mean that we don't pay attention to other crimes, or that we don't fight drug trafficking, but the central theme at this time is diminishing violence in the country," Pena Nieto said in a recent interview.

Pena Nieto's campaign said drug cartels could still be attacked, particularly if they carry out murders, kidnappings and extortion, but arresting their leaders will no longer be the focus of government efforts.

"Each administration chooses its operational objectives, and the objective per se is not the extradition or capture of big bosses, or the burning of seized drugs," said Pena Nieto's campaign coordinator, Luis Videgaray.

Some observers say that a strategy to reduce violence above all else could mean that drug dealers who conduct their businesses discreetly will be quietly left alone.

"I think that it's very clear that he's moving in the direction of concentrating the resources that the federal state has [toward] fighting crime and violence that affect people in Mexico . . . as opposed to concentrating the resources on combating drug trafficking," said Former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. "If you have scarce resources and you're focusing them on A, you're not focusing them on B."

Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, ruled Mexico for 70 years until it lost the presidency in 2000, and high-ranking party figures and their relatives were often accused of striking deals with cartels in exchange for political protection. Violence was far lower, in large part because cartels maintained uncontested control of smuggling routes in many parts of the country.

Opponents have been quick to say that Pena Nieto will go back to the old PRI model of cutting a deal with cartels.

"They've shown themselves to be absolutely tolerant of organized crime," Josefina Vazquez Mota told Spanish newspaper El Pais in a recent interview. Vazquez Mota is running on the presidential ticket for the National Action Party.

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