News Column

Mexico Focuses on Dollars, Not Drugs

May 1, 2013

Catholic priest Jesus Mendoza ministers to a working-class neighborhood in the hills of Acapulco that is a world away from the tourist resort destination below.

He says one parishioner had three of his daughters abducted for a $2,500 ransom. Business owners are being forced to pay off extortionists. And 120 parishioners are either missing, kidnapped or have been killed over the past six years.

When President Obama arrives in Mexico on Thursday, he will encounter a country that is still suffering from widespread violence against ordinary citizens from organized criminal and drug cartels -- but he will also find that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office Dec. 1, has little interest in talking about crime or getting more help from the United States to combat it.

"This new government has a media strategy to minimize the subject of violence as the country's main problem and give the impression that good times are coming, beginning with their actions," Mendoza says.

That campaign, Mendoza and others say, is to market Mexico to the world by tamping down talk of a country where drug kingpins control whole districts with unremitting violence and portray Mexico as an emerging economic power and safe haven for foreign investment.

That strategy was on display this week when the Interior Ministry announced that U.S. federal law enforcement agencies will no longer be allowed to work directly with its police and intelligence departments but must go through the ministry itself. The move is part of several aimed at preventing crime rather than undertaking large-scale operations to eliminate the drug kingpins who are a primary concern of the United States.

Mexico's drug syndicates are the No. 1 supplier of illegal drugs into the United States. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has said Mexican cartels are also infiltrating drug-selling operations in major U.S. cities and taking over.

According to a 2011 Justice Department report, the Mexican drug cartels "represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States."

Obama visits Mexico on Thursday and Friday for meetings expected to touch on economic issues as much the security situation. The Pena Nieto administration intends to emphasize matters such as achieving structural changes in the energy sector and tax system, creating jobs and cultivating the Mexican economy.

"He is downplaying the number of murders," says George Grayson, Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "He wants to turn the debate to social and economic issues."

Pena Nieto has stopped publicizing the high-profile arrests and police actions trumpeted in previous administrations.

Though the arrests made headlines in the United States, less well known are the 65,000 Mexicans killed and 25,000 people missing from the cartels' war against one another and the government's operations to break them.

Pena Nieto has ended the perp walks in which captured cartel kingpins are paraded before the news media. The military no longer invites the media here to witness soldiers burning marijuana plantations and tanks rolling over seized weapons.

Mexican news media are downplaying the violence, too. The Observatory for Coverage of Violence reported that the words "organized crime" were published 50% less frequently on newspaper front pages and have appeared 70% less often on television since Pena Nieto took office in December.

Yet some Mexico newspapers report that villagers in some states are forming armed self-defense groups to defend their homes and families and businesses.

Mendoza, the Acapulco priest, says the groups are indicative of the frustrations felt by ordinary Mexicans over the absence of the authorities. He is not optimistic that things will change soon.

"This violence developed over decades," he says. "It's not going to be resolved in one six-year term, even if there's a correct strategy."

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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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