Mexico's President Alters Tactics Against Drug Crimes

Mexico's new attorney general says there are now 60 to 80 drug cartels operating in the country, a sharp rise from the 10 that existed when outgoing President Calderon took office in 2006. President Enrique Pena Nieto says he wants to go after crime associated with drug trafficking instead of taking down crime bosses.

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It has been a busy year in Mexico's war on drugs. The administration of former President Felipe Calderon struck major blows to the country's largest cartels, slowing the violence that has claimed more than 50,000 lives.

But the new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, says he'll change tactics. He wants to go after the crime associated with drug trafficking instead of taking down crime bosses. His new attorney general says this is the right strategy, since the number of crime gangs working in the country has grown significantly.

Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Mexican anti-drug officials nabbed some of the country's top kingpins last year. They got a key Sinaloa cartel lieutenant who had radically altered his appearance with plastic surgery, several capos of the ultra-violent Zeta cartel, and arrested a top leader of the now-weakened Gulf Cartel. Out of 39 on its most-wanted List, the Calderon administration got 12.

But despite the headlines and accolades accompanying each arrest, Mexico's new President Enrique Pena Nieto says the kingpin strategy is not for him. He prefers going after the extortionists, kidnappers and street criminals that he says terrorize innocent Mexicans.


PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: Highlights from a recent speech outlining his new anti-drug violence plan were set to music and posted on the official presidential website.


NIETO: (Foreign language spoken)

KAHN: We will all work together to bring peace to Mexico, says Pena. He quickly dismantled the previous administration's Public Security ministry and transferred national crime coordination to the Interior Department. And he says he will form a 10,000-strong national police force, although he hasn't given a specific start date.

On national radio two weeks ago, his newly-appointed Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam kept up the attack on the previous administration. Murillo said the kingpin strategy may have removed the leaders of some cartels, but it just created smaller, more violent factions. Murillo then stunned many by saying 60 to 80 crime cartels now operate in the country.


KAHN: This has just brought more fragmentation and more brutality, says Murillo.

However, not everyone was stunned by the much higher cartel figure. Jorge Chabat of Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics says the former administration was aware its strategy would create small gangs. They just didn't publicize a number.

JORGE CHABAT: I ask you what is worse: To have big criminal violent organizations, or small criminal violent organizations? I think it is bad in both ways, though.

KAHN: He says the incoming Pena administration would have criticized its predecessor no matter what. And he adds despite Pena's attempts to distance himself from the strategy of the past six years, his new 10,000-man national police force will also rely heavily on the military.

John Burton of the Stratfor Intelligence Group doesn't see much difference between the two administration's strategies, either, although he was impressed with the attorney general's recent public comments.

JOHN BURTON: There's better intelligence collection on what's actually taking place, which gives you some visibility into what's occurring. I think that's positive.

KAHN: But Burton says what officials do with that information will be key. He says coordination between local, state and federal forces is a perennial problem, as is corruption, which will inevitably be President Pena's biggest crime-fighting challenge in 2013.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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