MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Has what's gone around come around again in the long struggle against Mexico's gangsters?
After many months casting about for alternatives, President Enrique Peña Nieto seems to have returned to his predecessor's strategy of frying the gangland's bigger fish and relying on the military to do it.
Peña Nieto and his aides have sharply criticized former President Felipe Calderon's US-supported strategy, which despite more than 70,000 deaths in seven years hasn't diminished the gangsters’ firepower, illicit rackets or sway in much of Mexico. The new Mexican administration had sought to back away, at least publicly, from Calderon's military-led campaign and its tight but often chaotic ties with US security agencies.
The shift pleased critics of what many called "Calderon's War" while jangling nerves in Washington. But Peña Nieto's efforts of late have come to look much like Calderon's.
Navy special forces troops, armed in part with US-supplied intelligence, last week captured Zetas cartel boss Miguel Angel Treviño, aka Z-40, without a shot fired. Days earlier, federal forces had arrested Victor Hugo Delgado, a purported boss of the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation, a Guadalajara-anchored group allied with Mexico’s most-wanted man Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Meanwhile, thousands of troops and federal police remain deployed in the Pacific coast states of Michoacan and Guerrero, where members of the Knights Templar and other gangs are waging havoc on villages. Skirmishes between gangs and security forces have killed dozens this week in both states.
“What it shows is that the new administration of President Peña Nieto is serious about continuing the efforts to break up these transnational drug operations," President Barack Obama told the Univision television network the day after Treviño's arrest. "And there had been some question about that, I think early on during his campaign, and immediately after his election."
Some 85 percent of Mexicans approve of the military’s role in the anti-gangster campaign, according to a March opinion poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center. Three out of four favor US training of police and military while little more than half approve of the provision of money and weapons from Washington. But the Mexican public is overwhelming against a direct role for US security forces.
Security cooperation with its northern neighbor had cooled after Peña Nieto took office Dec. 1 as Mexican officials attempted to re-calibrate the relationship with Washington. But when the two leaders met in Mexico City in early May, Peña "indicated to me to me that he recognizes the need to deal with these transnational drug cartels in a serious way," Obama said in the interview concerning Z-40. "This is evidence of it."
Outgoing US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is meeting with Peña Nieto on Wednesday in Mexico City, after holding talks with Mexican security officials Tuesday in the gang-ridden border city of Matamoros. Napolitano told reporters on the border that cooperation was as strong as ever.
“What we have been working on is improved intelligence sharing between our countries on a real-time basis,” Napolitano said.
Both governments have downplayed the role of US-provided intelligence in the July 15 pre-dawn arrest of Treviño about 20 miles from the Texas border at Laredo. But the navy special forces who detained the drug lord have for years worked closely with US agencies and have been Washington's preferred security partner.
After months of keeping such arrests from the public eye, officials paraded Treviño before the cameras on July 15. Peña Nieto and his security aides previously have argued that staging such “perp walks,” and emphasizing the importance of particular detainees, only served to transform those arrested into role models for impressionable youths.
Peña Nieto's major security proposal at the start of his term was the creation of a paramilitary force, modeled on France's gendarmerie and the national police of several South American countries, that would eventually replace the more than 40,000 troops now in the field. But initial plans for 10,000 gendarmes that would quickly expand to 40,000 have now been slashed to just 5,000 officers.
“The obvious implication is that the armed forces are going to continue being involved in public security work for a good while longer," writes analyst Alejandro Hope in his blog Plata o Plomo (Silver or Lead) in the online publication Animal Politico.
Targets abound should Mexican officials now decide to go after more kingpins like Treviño.
Citing security officials, the Mexican press has identified at least four Treviño underlings, including younger brother Omar, called Z-42, capable of replacing him as Zetas boss.
US and Mexican officials also point to alleged current Gulf Cartel boss Mario Ramirez, known as X-20 or “Baldy,” as a threat to the Zetas' hold on the smuggling routes across the Rio Grande into South Texas.
Farther west, El Chapo Guzman and Ismael Zambada of the Sinaloa Cartel, also called the Pacific Federation, stand greatly strengthened by the Zetas’ reversal of fortune. And both the Knights Templar and La Familia continue to wreak havoc in Michoacan, Guerrero and the working-class suburbs of Mexico City.
Despite the apparent policy shifts, Mexican officials continue to emphasize the need to attack the social causes of violence and to focus on reducing assaults, kidnappings, extortion and other crimes affecting most ordinary citizens.
"There will be no backsliding in security," Osorio Chong said of the anti-gangster policy during the Tuesday meeting with Napolitano. "We will continue forward and of course we aren't going to allow that they threaten the security, the property and the lives of citizens."