What Was the Error?

Luis Rubio

We Mexicans are fed up with the violence, the slaughter, the extortion, the abductions, the lack of security and the cavalier attitude manifested toward these by the authority. In this regard there is nearly absolute and universal consensus.  Where opinion divides –and polarizes- is in what to do about it and, above all, whether Felipe Calderón erred in launching an attack on the factions of organized crime. For some, the true problem resided in believing that insecurity is a problem: it would have been better, they say, to negotiate peace with the criminals, give them their space, therefore living in peace and quiet. That is, according to this logic, the error was in kicking the hornet’s nest, because that was what engendered the violence.

Behind the discussion on public security lie two issues that are frequently interwoven but that are distinct: on the one hand, the function of the government in matters of security and, on the other, the strategy that should or can be followed to combat it.      That is, the former is the objective toward which we should aspire and the latter is to how to advance in that direction. While the dispute with respect to security is centered on the latter, the reality is that the important one is the former. Those who perceive that the problem was in kicking the hornets’ nest do not understand what the nature was of the political regime that made peace possible in the past, in addition to that that they have not the least regard for the panic with which the greater part of the citizenry lives.

There is an enormous measure of nostalgia in the notion that we can return to that mythical era of peace and tranquility that worked because the government “negotiated” with the criminals. That nostalgia, which feeds the AMLO discourse and that has been the action guide (in a manner of saying) of the current government, derives from an erroneous premise: that the peace and stability that did in effect exist in the fifties or sixties was the product of an effective security system, when in fact the peace and security that Mexico experienced for some decades was to a greater degree the upshot of authoritarian controls than of a sustainable security system. In brief, unless someone thinks that it is desirable, or possible, to reconstruct the fifties, there is nowhere to return to.

If one accepts that the nodal function of the existence of a government is public security, then the Mexican government has been a failure. Instead of devoting itself to building the scaffolding necessary for the citizenry to have tranquility on a daily basis and that their family members will not be robbed, abducted, extorted or killed, the government has abdicated its responsibility: it engineers colloquies and insults the critics but does not solve the problem. The worst of it is that it does not even recognize that there is a problem.

It is within this context that the manner in which Felipe Calderón in terms of security matters should be evaluated. The chief merit of Calderón was that he recognized that the government is responsible for public security. Whatever his errors may have been -of strategy or of implementation- no one can detract from his having accepted that the government is accountable for peace among citizens. No minor exploit.

His strategy, in essence, consisted of constructing a federal police force that would dedicate itself to confronting organized crime. There are three types of critics of what he did: some, those already mentioned, do not perceive a problem and think that Calderón created it, thus he is answerable for the upsurge of deaths during the last decade. The paradox of that criticism is that the groundswell of deaths began to decline at the end of the Calderón presidential term, suggesting that at least something good was happening. The second reproof is that he should have attacked the money sources more than the narcos themselves, i.e., a matter of strategy. Finally the third group argues that everything was concentrated on besieging the criminal element and not on building the base of a new security system.

The experts will evaluate the critics, but there is no doubt that Calderón’s relevant legacy is having acknowledged the   responsibility of the State in this case in point. The challenge now is to edify a new security system.*

Beyond what was or was not done in the matter of security during the decades following the decline of authoritarianism, Mexicans are far from arriving at a consensus on the nature of the problem, supplying fodder for the myths and prejudices swarming around the political, legislative and public discussion.  Many of the existing proposals, from the Single Mandate (i.e. the governors controlling all local police forces) to legislation in interior security affairs (which would provide a legal framework for the army’s participation on security matters), respond to particular interests or situations that have nothing to do with the fear that the better part of the citizenry is suffering through.  The result is that we have a discouraged Federal Police force whose nerves are in tatters and no vision or strategy of constructing security from the bottom up, the only way it works, everywhere in the world.

The fallacy of the nostalgic coterie lies in its supposition that security can be imposed when in actuality it must constructed. And that construction should be from the bottom up (starting with the municipality) with the full support of the Federal Police and the Army. That is to say, those forces should focus on making possible the building of local police and judicial capacities. Everything else is the stuff of demagoguery.
* http://consejomexicano.org/?s=seccion&id=5