Mexican tangle

Print edition : July 13, 2012

Maribel Cervantes Gurrero, chief of the Mexican federal police.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

President Felipe Calderon will step down as President at the end of his six-year term at a crucial time in his and the countrys battle against the drug cartels.

My many visits to Mexico have convinced me that such a beautiful country with an extremely positive and vibrant populace cannot be mired for too long in a problem that was not exactly of its own making. For years Mexico had been just a convenient transit point for drugs produced in Colombia and despatched to the U.S., where they had a huge market. This situation came about because of the tightening of the Caribbean route for such trafficking and the desperate scouting by illicit traders in Colombia for an alternative path. Mexico with its lax administrative apparatus provided this. A link-up between Mexican and Colombian drug dealers started in the 1980s. Over time, apart from facilitating traffic to the U.S., local consumption of drugs became substantial, thereby making the country a battleground for the many gangs (popularly known as cartels) thriving on the illegal trade in cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Mexico also produces a certain amount of drugs, and is a major exporter of cannabis.

President Vincente Fox, who was in office from 2000 to 2006, no doubt showed some spirit in tackling the problem. But his efforts, including the dispatch of troops to the province of Tamaulipas, had only a marginal impact. The turf war became violent from around 2006 following the assumption of office of President Felipe Calderon, who was determined to free the country of a scourge that had brought great odium to a proud nation and, more than that, untold misery to thousands of families that had lost their breadwinners. Unlike many of his predecessors, who either winked at the dominance of the drug gangs or plumped for soft options, Calderon took the cartels head on and escalated the offensive. The Army was used in a big way to complement the police, and very harsh measures were used in an attempt to liquidate the major cartels.

The net result was a merciless reprisal by the cartels equipped with firearms smuggled from across the border. This explains the mind-boggling violence one witnesses in an otherwise socially vibrant country that has the potential to challenge every one of the BRICS nations in terms of infrastructure and innovation. The potency of drug lords and their ability to strike terror in their rivals and in government forces has, naturally, brought a negative image to the nation. Although one does not feel this in Mexico City, violence has nearly reached the outskirts of the federal capital.

There is a visible national consensus that Mexico has necessarily to go the full length to extricate itself from what is apparently a hopeless situation. High levels of rural poverty and urban unemployment demand such decisive action before the problem engulfs the whole country. Calderon has achieved measurable success. He has, however, many detractors who put the blame squarely on him for the unbelievable spurt in violence. The uninhibited use of the Army is cited as one reason why the cartels have reacted as they have done.

Whatever be the truth, it is unfortunate that Calderon has to leave office at this critical juncture, when he is not very far from victory in his anti-cartel offensive, because his six-year term as President is coming to an end. Under the countrys Constitution, a person can serve only one term as President. Elections are slated for July 1, a mere fortnight ahead of our own presidential poll. It will be fought bitterly between the ruling party (National Action Party, known as PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is attempting to seize power after 12 years in hibernation. There is a widespread feeling that the former will not find favour with the electorate, paving the way for the victory of PRIs Enrique Pena Nieto.

There is also the assessment that whoever succeeds Calderon will not challenge the drug cartels with the same determination that Calderon has shown. This is not because of any tacit approval of what the gangs are doing. If the offensive is downgraded by a successor administration it will be only because of a fear of personal danger to those who wield authority in the new set-up. It requires courage to deal with the cartels, and only Calderon and his dynamic Minister for Security, Luna Garcia, have measured up to it.

There is speculation that Garcia and his energetic Chief of Staff, Antonio Polo Oteyz, a personal friend of mine of great charm who has immense love for India, could possibly be retained by the new administration because of their essentially non-political credentials. Polo tells me that he is too fatigued to stay on. I am hoping that the call of patriotic duty will ultimately persuade him not to withdraw from the half-fought battle. It will be tragic if this does not happen because it could lead to a relaxation of the ceaseless pressure that the government has maintained on the cartels. This is fraught with other consequences as well, including the further corruption of the bureaucracy and the security forces.

Most admirable in all this is the transparency shown by the Calderon administration to showcase its efforts to erase the negative image the country has acquired because of the violence let loose by the cartels. One commendable recent step was the constitution of an International Experts Group, which was provided access to whatever was being done to stem the rot. This group, apart from studying the situation, has offered an international perspective to the handling of the Mexican tangle. It has had the benefit of a face-to-face dialogue with Luna Gracia, who is remarkable for his openness and willingness to learn from other countries. This is one fact that gives me optimism that sooner rather than later Mexico will get out of its mess.

The second measure that inspires confidence is the strengthening of the federal police. The 2008 amendment to the Constitution was unique in that it gave legal status to the federal police in investigating crime. Until then real power rested with the prosecutors owing allegiance to the Attorney Generals office and the police were at their mercy for direction.

The federal police department has six divisions. Its investigation division now enjoys near autonomy in registering and investigating crime. It has several coordinations (sub-units), which operate in unison. The technical wing of the division is well equipped and has state-of-the-art technology. One of its leaders is a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose several innovations include robotic support to the police. An electronic crime wing gives admirable strength to investigation. Incidentally, this wing manages the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) for the whole country.

Investigating non-drug-related kidnaps in the country engages the Federal Police most of the time. I was amazed to see that the police had constructed a huge voice database that helped them track down gangs behind ransom demands. From a meagre strength of about 5,000 until a few years ago, the federal police now command more than 30,000 personnel. They were recruited on the basis of very high standards, trained well and paid handsomely. The chief of the investigation division told me that he had almost no public complaint against his staff, either on human rights issues or in terms of graft. This is amazing and I have little reason to disbelieve him.

During my last visit to Mexico I had the wonderful opportunity to interact with several members in the Mexican police leadership. While I was impressed with almost all of them, one figure stood out: Maribel Cervantes Gurrero, the General Commissioner, who is the chief of the federal police. She is just 42. Armed with a Bachelors Degree in Communication and a Masters in Military Administration, she joined the federal government in 1993 as an analyst at the Centre for Investigation and National Security. With a strong intelligence and counterterrorism background and exposed to training in the U.S., Spain and Israel, she was made the head of the federal police in February 2012. She exudes remarkable professional confidence. Her poise and determination, backed by strong political and administrative support, mark her out as a leader par excellence. It is this kind of leadership that gives me hope that the Mexican police will meet its current challenges with considerable professionalism.

Perhaps most striking was the recent move to ask the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to do an evaluation of the federal police. This was an expensive exercise conducted with the help of international consultants. The outcome of the bold experiment is expected to be known shortly. The belief is that the consultation process has been a remarkable success, and it has shown the federal police in good light.

Independent of all these attempts to strengthen law enforcement in the country, the main problem the federal government faces is how to raise the standards of policing in the 32 States that constitute the federation. This is analogous to our own Central governments travails in carrying the 28 States with it to strengthen counterterrorism. The Calderon administration is affected by the same handicap. The State Governors, the real force in the States, come from different political persuasions, and do not fall in line with the federal government. Each one of them has his own agenda, making national policy formulation against anti-social elements an uphill task.

On the whole, trying times are ahead for Mexico. A lot will depend on who is going to succeed Calderon. India will be watching the process with interest because our two countries are great friends and we have identical, if not the same, problems in the area of law enforcement. For me personally, the exposure to the Mexican police has been a great learning experience.

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