President Peña Nieto and the demilitarization of the drug war in Mexico


Since assuming office in December 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and his administration have generated a country-wide sentiment of excitement and interest in the major reform efforts of the federal government. To many Mexicans, Peña Nieto has come across as a youthful leader making good on electoral promises of reforms the country desperately needs[i]. The arrest of “La Maestra,”—the corrupt leader of the country’s most powerful labor union[ii]—and the  Telecommunications bill going through the legislature at the moment—which seeks to end the oligopolistic nature of the industry in Mexico—are both examples of what he has done to reform two decades-old problem areas: public education and telecoms regulations. However, there is also a major bloc of the population that is not as optimistic, fearing that the current combination of a PRI president and a PRI-dominated legislature will bring the Mexican government back to the way it was during much of the twentieth century when the PRI party was the only party in town. This not too distant era in Mexico’s history made the PRI party famous for being corrupt, authoritarian, and actively colluding with organized crime. But for both those who are optimistic and those who are not, there is a question that largely still remains unanswered: How will this new administration deal with the cartel-related violence that has claimed so many lives?

During his electoral campaign, Peña Nieto promised to reduce the violence that has gripped much of the country under the administration of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderon[iii]. Calderon’s administration sought to aggressively tackle the drug cartels and put an end to organized crime, a crusade that has so far yielded mixed results and has left approximately 60,000 dead[iv]. The previous administration found that law enforcement units often lacked the firepower to take on the cartels directly, or in some cases police had negotiated alliances with local cartels. The cooperation of Mexico’s police forces with the country’s drug cartels has largely been spurred by the opportunity for policemen to significantly increase their earnings. Indeed, many police officers only earn around $700USD per month, but can double or triple their salary in earnings from cartels by merely agreeing not to interfere with them[v].  President Calderon’s polemic response was to transform the drug war from a law enforcement effort to a military one, deploying 45,000 soldiers to municipalities facing a robust cartel presence or an ineffective police force[vi]. The introduction of soldiers to the drug war may have also been in response to the growing power of a brutal cartel known for using indiscriminate violence: los Zetas. With its ranks including many well trained and well armed former elite soldiers, the Zetas have recently become one of Mexico’s strongest and most violent cartels, killing many rival cartel members and civilians as it expanded its territory[vii].

Peña Nieto has criticized the tactics of the Calderon administration, but his own administration appears—at least outwardly—poised to continue taking the battle to the cartels. It is too early to ascertain with much certainty how the government’s strategy will change, but the new President’s approach will likely differ from Calderon’s in that Peña Nieto will seek a gradual demilitarization of the conflict, passing the onus to civilian law enforcement units. Peña Nieto has also stated he will not continue the practice of targeting cartel leaders, a change in strategy that is likely to reduce violence that erupts in response to power vacuums[viii].

Those Mexicans who are wary of Peña Nieto and the PRI party, along with their neighbors to the north and south, wonder whether he will seek to reduce violence by negotiating with the cartels to provide them with space to conduct their operations in exchange for a ceasefire – an option reminiscent of the “old” PRI party. But the PRI party publicly stated that it will not consider this option[ix]. The RAND Corporation’s Brian Michael Jenkins suggests that a negotiated peace is not an option available to Pena Nieto[x]. After years of intensive conflict with rivals and the government, some once powerful cartels have been weakened or fragmented under former President Calderon’s efforts to tackle drug trafficking, giving rise to a new strata of smaller criminal groups that would be hard to bring under control if the government sought to negotiate with the major cartels. These little groups are prone to violence and would likely shatter any truce. Eric Olson at the Woodrow Wilson Center offers another possibility in the same vein: the government could negotiate truces with some of the cartels but not all, so that resources can be concentrated on dismantling one or two powerful cartels, which may reduce violence marginally and prevent the government from biting off more than it can chew[xi]. But this option is also plagued by the new strata of smaller criminal groups that are likely to end any truce prematurely.

Can we tell at this point what option President Peña Nieto is going to take? His ambitious reform agenda likely means any major actions regarding the cartels will be put on the back burner for now, so as not to endanger the possibility for his reform bills to be approved by both houses of Congress. But one part of his large package of reforms points to a strategy of demilitarization of the conflict. In February, the President met with governors of almost all the states to gather support for his proposed bill to centralize all oversight and leadership of the nation’s police forces under one command[xii]. This reform package is aimed at increasing accountability, reducing corruption, building capacity, and focusing resources where they are needed most in order to ensure police forces throughout the country are prepared to take on the cartels with reduced help from the military. Additionally, the President has ordered a 16% reduction in the number of combat troops working on counternarcotics operations[xiii]. For those troops that remain, their mission has changed from conducting operations to eliminate high value targets to conducting operations aimed at reducing violence. Another major change put in place by the new administration has been to integrate civilian law enforcement units into a previously-established capacity building program between Mexico’s Secretariat for National Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense, with the understanding by all parties that civilian law enforcement officials are now the leading actors in counter narcotics operations[xiv]. These changes all suggest that President Peña Nieto is making good on his promise to reduce the military’s role in the conflict against the cartels and to provide civilian law enforcement with the support it needs to effectively continue the fight. The coming months and years will test whether demilitarization is the best approach, and if not, the current administration may need to reassess and identify what other options remain on the table.

[i] It should be mentioned that this relative excitement has been curbed by the realization that upcoming efforts to pass financial and energy sector reforms will require changes to the Constitution, requiring a two thirds majority. It will be difficult to bring the three largest political parties to agreement on any major reforms in these two areas, especially since the two issues are interrelated given that government revenues are highly dependent upon petroleum sales.

[ii] Will Grant, “’La Maestra’ of Mexico faces her biggest challenge,” BBC, Feb. 27, 2013,

[iii] Nicholas Casey, “Las prioridades de Pena Nieto: el narcotrafico y la economia,” WSJ, Jul. 4, 2012,

[iv] Catherine Shoichet, “A grisly crime surges into spotlight as Mexico shifts drug war strategy,” CNN, Mar. 28, 2013,

[v] Patrick Corcoran, “Pay Raises Alone won’t Break Chain of Polic Corruption,” In Sight Crime, Sept. 29, 2011,

[vi] Shannon O’Neil, “Mexico-U.S. Relations: What’s Next?,” Americas Quarterly, Spring 2010, 70.

[vii] Kazi Stastna, “The cartels behind Mexico’s drug war,” CBC News, Aug. 28, 2011,

[viii] Taylor Dibbert, “Enrique Pena Nieto and Mexico’s Drug War Opening,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Dec. 4, 2012,

[ix] Brian Michael Jenkins, “Will Mexico’s New President Continue the War on the Cartels?,” RAND Corp., Nov. 16, 2012,

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Eric Olson, “Considering New Strategies for Confronting Organized Crime in Mexico,” Woodrow Wilson Center, Mar. 2012,

[xii] “Pena pide encontrar via legal para el mando unico policial,” ADN Politico, Feb. 18, 2013,

[xiii] “Con Pena Nieto, 16% menos soldados en la lucha antinarco,” La Policiaca, Mar. 11, 2013,

[xiv] “Ejercito de EU capacitara a fuerzas civiles de Mexico,” La Policiaca, Mar. 27, 2013,

Photo credit: Washington Post

About Author

Alejandro Gamboa

Alejandro Gamboa is an editor in chief at the International Security Observer and head of the Security Studies Division. Alejandro works as a researcher and analyst at a private security firm in the Washington DC area. His work helps private and public sector clients keep abreast of the threats they face in high-risk regions of the world. Born in the Seattle area, Alejandro received his BA from the University of Washington, majoring in International Studies with a specialization in ethnic conflict and nationalist movements. He obtained his MA in International Relations at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, where he wrote his thesis on the use of preventive violence by states to mitigate some of the most salient national security threats of the post-Cold War era. He is fluent in English and Spanish.

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