The Mexican government’s decision to limit the access that U.S. law enforcement agents had under the previous administration should be seen more as an effort to streamline enforcement and not as an affront to its northern neighbor, analysts and lawmakers say.
But, some analysts cautioned, the move will impact the ties established during former President Felipe Calderón’s battle against criminal elements in Mexico.
The changes being instituted by current President Enrique Peña Nieto, first reported by The Associated Press, would require U.S. agencies working with Mexican agents to be vetted for approval by Mexico’s Interior Ministry. The publication reported that Mexican authorities explained the change as an attempt to consolidate efforts between the multiple branches of Mexican law enforcement.
During Calderón’s time in office, U.S. agencies generally had easy access to their counterparts within the federal police, as well as officials within the Mexican army and navy.
Andrew Selee, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s vice president for programs and a senior adviser to its Mexico Institute, said there are pros and cons to the developments.
“The positive side is that is it seems that this administration wants to be much more coordinated and make sure there are strategic decisions on dealing with organized crime that are made at a high level,” he said. “The downside is that some of the day-to-day relationships between agencies across the border could be lost by centralizing decision-making.”
Selee said that Peña Nieto’s administration should be lauded for aspiring to create a more streamlined approach but that the new approach carries risks.
“We won’t know until we see this in action, but certainly more coordination is a good thing and more attention to overall strategy is a good thing,” he said. “The only question is does some of the ability to pivot quickly get lost?”
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who met with Peña Nieto before and after his December inauguration, said the move is in line with the reforms that Peña Nieto promised. Other pledged reforms include changes in education policy, opening the country’s oil giant, PEMEX, to private investment and an effort to overhaul the country’s telecommunications industry.
“He’s following the guidelines of what he wanted to do,” Cuellar said. “He’s not coming up with any surprises.”
Mexico, Cuellar added, is also a sovereign nation that doesn’t need permission to change its practices.
“They wanted to go ahead and centralize how they provide security,” Cuellar said. “And they don’t come in and tell us how to fight crime over here. This is the strategy they want.”
Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, replaced Calderón’s more conservative National Action Party in 2012, after the PAN ruled Mexico for 12 years.
The PRI’s 2012 victory stoked concerns in Mexico and beyond that the party would return to the means by which it ruled for the 71 years it held power before the National Action Party’s ascent: an iron-fisted and allegedly corrupt method of governing where deals with criminal elements were reportedly commonplace.
Cuellar doesn’t see that happening.
“I think this is a new PRI, this is new thinking,” he said, adding that leaders in the U.S. might not be accustomed to this approach so quickly.
“We expect every president to talk about drugs and immigration and guns,” he said. “He just has a different way. He wants to improve his country by doing this. Does he have to [address] security? Yes, without a doubt. But they are trying to figure out their strategy.”
Cuellar, who serves on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said that how the U.S. moves forward with the remaining balance of the Mérida Initiative — an aid package intended to help the Mexican and Central American governments battle organized crime — depends on how Mexico establishes its security policies.
“Before we move forward on post-Mérida or even the money that’s remaining, we are trying to see what their strategy is going to be,” he said. “Anytime there is a new administration there is always new strategy, new people, new thinking coming in.”
Of the $1.9 billion worth of aid Congress appropriated from the 2008 to the 2012 fiscal years, about $1.1 billion was delivered as of November 2012.
The PRI's move is also largely political, said Alonzo Peña, the former deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“If they stick to the same thing that Calderón was doing, or they don’t show they are changing, they are giving him success,” said Peña, who also served as a Department of Homeland Security attaché at the U.S. Embassy before retiring in 2010. “I think that’s a big thing, they want to distance themselves because if they don’t, that gives the appearance that he was successful, that the PAN was successful.”
Peña said the “jury is still out” on whether the changes should bolster concerns about the PRI, but he added that there are possible indicators of the reforms’ effectiveness, including whether alleged criminals are prosecuted.
“Some of the people … that were apprehended under the previous administration, [prosecutors] are coming back and saying ‘The witnesses weren’t reliable. The cases weren’t good’ and people are being released,” he said. “That would be much more concerning than them trying to get their house in order and making structural changes.”