Drug strategy unclear as Mexico pares back new security force

MEXICO CITY Wed Aug 28, 2013 1:26am BST

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto gives a speech during a proposal for energy reforms at Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City August 12, 2013. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto gives a speech during a proposal for energy reforms at Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City August 12, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Henry Romero

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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's government on Tuesday diluted plans for a new security force to fight drug gangs, as President Enrique Pena Nieto struggles to break with the military-led strategy of his predecessor.

Pena Nieto took office in December vowing to take a different tack in Mexico's raging drug war. Former President Felipe Calderon tried to tame drug bosses with a military assault, but it was widely seen as a failure and more than 70,000 people died in drug-related violence.

Pena Nieto originally promised a 40,000-member gendarmerie, or militarized police force, that would take the lead in tackling violent crimes like extortion and kidnapping as the marines and army gradually returned to their barracks.

The aim was to move the command away from Mexico's complex network of poorly paid security forces, which have been easy targets for the cartels to infiltrate and corrupt.

The government has since said the armed forces will remain active in the fight against drug gangs because the death toll has remained stubbornly high. The gendarmerie will be much smaller and patrol mainly rural areas to safeguard the passage of people and goods.

"The gendarmerie will be a division of the federal police, made up of 5,000, who will begin their mission in July 2014," Manuel Mondragon, the government's national security commissioner, said at a security meeting with Pena Nieto.

He said the government had modified its plan after taking into account the opinions of community leaders and academics. Mondragon said 1,710 members of the gendarmerie had been hired so far.

Pena Nieto, who has tried to shift public attention away from the violence toward Mexico's economic potential, said the number of murders between December and July this year had fallen by 20 percent compared with the same period last year.

Still, about 1,000 people have died each month in drug violence since Pena Nieto took office, official data show.

Some analysts say little appears to have changed between the two administrations.

"It's starting to look like same-old, same-old," said Sylvia Longmire, a former agent with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations, who now works as a drug war analyst.

"The military is still out there, the gendarmerie is not taking shape as he originally planned ... and he's still going after the big fish."

The government has captured a number of kingpins, including the head of the Gulf cartel and Miguel Angel Trevino, leader of the ultraviolent Zetas, last month.

Critics argue Calderon's strategy of going after drug bosses backfired because cartels fragmented in the ensuing power-struggles, ratcheting up the blood-letting.

The Mexican military is still involved in regular clashes with the cartels in sparsely populated areas across the country, displacing local residents and leading others to take up arms in vigilante groups.

"The main question in my mind is, 'do they know what they're doing?'" said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute and a drug war specialist, calling the gendarmerie a "gimmick."

"Do they have a well thought-out strategy that they're trying to employ? Or are they figuring out things as they go?"

(Editing by Simon Gardner and Stacey Joyce)

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