Baker Institute expert: Mexico ‘is at a crossroads’ on organized crime

Jeff Falk

Baker Institute expert: Mexico ‘is at a crossroads’ on organized crime

HOUSTON – (Dec. 20, 2017) – Rising crime and violence in Mexico threaten to derail the economic reforms that are President Enrique Peña Nieto’s legacy — in particular, the historic energy reforms that opened the sector to foreign investment, according to an issue brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: University

“Mexico’s Security Challenges Are Jeopardizing Its Future” was authored by Tony Payan, the Françoise and Edward Djerejian Fellow for Mexico Studies at the Baker Institute and director of the institute’s Mexico Center. The brief puts this development in historical context and discusses several factors suggesting that it may be too late for Peña Nieto to substantively change Mexico’s criminal landscape before the election of a new president in July 2018.

Under Peña Nieto’s predecessor, President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, Mexico’s public safety and security were severely challenged between 2007 and 2012, a period marked by a dramatic rise in the number of homicides and other violent crimes, Payan said. The situation was widely considered to be the result of Calderon’s frontal assault on organized crime, which included the deployment of federal police and the military throughout the country.

“The (Calderon) administration argued that its crackdown paradoxically resulted in greater violence in the short term because criminals responded by lashing out against the government, tightening their grip on society by expanding the scope of their criminal activities, and — eventually — fighting each other for control of their illegal but highly profitable enterprises,” Payan wrote. “The logic behind the strategy … was to target cartel leaders through military force, which destabilized the organizations, causing them to fragment into smaller groups. The approach came as the powerful cartels challenged the viability of the Mexican state and ultimately controlled the country’s criminal activity.”

The second part of the plan was to strengthen law enforcement and the judicial system, which could in time successfully arrest and prosecute members of the smaller gangs. “However, the result of the strategy — including the deaths of tens of thousands of people — horrified the public and eventually cost Calderon’s National Action Party the presidency in 2012,” Payan wrote.

When Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, took office at the end of 2012, he had two major goals in mind, Payan said: a reduction of overall violence, though not necessarily of crime in general, and a singular focus on pushing through structural reforms, such as those affecting the energy industry, the administration of justice, and elections. To accomplish his first objective, he eliminated the Ministry for Public Safety — the agency behind Calderon’s strategy — and ended the government’s military campaign against organized crime.

“Peña Nieto’s approach did reduce crime for a time, but the incidence of homicides and other crimes gradually crawled back up to record levels,” Payan wrote. Statistics suggest that 2017 may be the most violent year on record since the Mexican Revolution (which lasted from about 1910 to 1920), and that violent crime levels may exceed those of the Calderon administration. “Today, the central question is whether, by letting up on the fight against organized crime, Peña Nieto is in a situation that jeopardizes the success of the structural reforms that are the legacy of his presidency,” Payan wrote.

“The criminal landscape in Mexico is complex, but the Calderon administration’s strategy to combat it has not been pursued for the last five years,” Payan said. “The consequence is that Mexico’s violence and crime have increased to record levels and citizens are increasingly demanding radical change. In addition to the growing hesitation of energy companies to invest in Mexico — although they still consider it a lucrative market — crime and violence are causing citizens to turn to populist alternatives that may reverse newly implemented structural reforms. Although it is difficult to predict what will happen, as there is no political clarity in Mexico, the country is at a crossroads, and implementing existing laws against organized crime is likely to be the greatest challenge of the next administration.”


For more information or to schedule an interview with Payan, contact Jeff Falk, associate director of national media relations at Rice, at or 713-348-6775.

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Payan on Twitter: @PayanTony

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About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.