NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico – The tank that has stood at the entrance to this Mexican border city since 2008 was not here on Christmas Eve. Neither was the machine gun turret that pointed down this gritty town’s main street.
But the masked soldiers remained. Residents say it is a sign that little law enforcement appears to exist except for the military officers who patrol the streets.
That could change, however, under policies announced recently by Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s newly inaugurated president.
Peña Nieto’s six-point plan includes better government planning, increased intergovernmental coordination, protection of human rights, more social investments and crime-prevention programs, additional evaluation of government programs and institution building.
The plan also proposes a 10,000-member gendarmerie to secure municipalities and states where law enforcement is powerless against organized crime. The administration has said it will focus on street gangs and criminals the cartels employ, a shift from former President Felipe Calderón’s emphasis on eliminating top cartel bosses.
Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, praised the platform’s call for better coordination. Under the leadership of Calderón, he said, agencies were too independent of one another.
“There was not good coordination with the Secretaría de Gobernación, and there was not good coordination with the military,” he said, referring to Mexico’s internal affairs agency, also known as SEGOB. The risk now, he added, is the potential to re-create the same bureaucracy.
“It could also mean you have a ministry like SEGOB that’s so powerful that it’s not very accountable or transparent,” he said. But the emphasis on coordination is positive, he added, and the investment in social programs has contributed to improvements.
Calderón’s tenure included what some analysts call one of the worst human-rights crises in the Americas: tens of thousands died in drug violence and most of the crimes went unsolved. But his war on the cartels yielded some positive results. In Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, the number of homicides could reach about 800 in 2012, a dramatic decrease from the estimated 2,100 in 2011 and the more than 3,600 in 2010.
A main reason is that the Sinaloa cartel has weakened the strength of the rival Juárez cartel. But Olson said the federal government deserves some credit.
“I think there is better local coordination with the state and the municipality,” he said. “Prosecutions are up, and the federal government’s social investment programs are better targeted and had some impact.”
Peña Nieto’s plan has not yet elicited a response from U.S. lawmakers. But some analysts are expressing concerns about the administration’s focus on street criminals over cartel leaders.
Phil Jordan, who was the director of the El Paso Intelligence Center during his time as a special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Dallas division, said it would allow the cartel heads to remain untouched because lower-level employees are always available.
“It takes longer to create the head of an organization,” he said. “But trying to get rid of street dealers is like trying to get rid of rabbits in the desert.”
Officials here and in the United States will probably dissect Peña Nieto’s proposals for some time. But there are still those who doubt results will come soon.
“The problems will remain the same,” said Antonio Rojas, a mechanic who has lived in Nuevo Laredo since 1975. “That’s especially true if the garbage in the United States — the drug buying and gun running — continues.”