Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto. (Photo courtesy of New America Media)
Louis E. V. Nevaer
New America Media
MERIDA, Mexico — In the wake of Mexico’s presidential election Sunday, analysts are expecting Mexico to launch a major “blitzkrieg surge” against the drug cartels during current president Felipe Calderon’s lame duck period.
President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto won’t take office until Dec. 1, leaving a five-month period during which Mexico is expected to intensify its drive against the drug cartels.
To the Mexican electorate – exhausted by six years of being affronted by the daily body count that was the product of Calderon’s militarization of the drug war – PRI candidate Peña Nieto promised to change strategy, and work to reduce violence.
“The task of the state, what should be its priority from my point of view, and what I have called for in this campaign, is to reduce the levels of violence,” he said in several interviews, by way of explaining his intention in shifting Calderon’s hard line against the various drug organizations operating throughout the country.
In private, however, Peña Nieto quietly reassured American officials that they could count on Mexico’s continued cooperation in current efforts to continue the war on drugs. A senior Obama official told reporters that Peña Nieto had assured the White House that “he is going to keep working with us.”
To make matters more complicated, Peña Nieto and Calderon have been working together, mindful of the opportunity presented by this lame-duck period – between July 1 and Dec. 1 – which affords Mexico the time frame to intensify military strikes against the drug cartels before the new president is sworn in.
It is expected that a blitkreig-style military “surge” against the drug cartels could strike at the heart of these organizations, and debilitate them to such a degree that the new Mexican president can then begin to implement a different set of strategies. Calderon’s six-year war against the drug cartels has already wreaked havoc, with hundreds of leaders and operatives from the major cartels and drug organizations killed, imprisoned or extradited to the United States.
For a year Calderon has sent almost 2,000 elite Mexican Army special forces to the border states and during the same period the United States has been sending CIA operatives and retired U.S. forces to Mexico.
Calderon’s reputation has already been sullied by a drug war that has left more than 50,000 people dead, and his hope is that a final series of strikes will get the job done before he leaves office. If that happens, in due course his image could be rehabilitated and the Mexican public could come to recognize that his policies prevented Mexico from becoming a narco-state.
The incoming president, meanwhile, can only stand to benefit from a major blitzkrieg before taking office.
Peña Nieto appointed Gen. Oscar Naranjo, the former chief of Colombia’s national police, as a “special adviser,” signaling his belief in a strong military approach to the “war on drugs.” Naranjo lives in Washington, D.C., and has been flying between the U.S. capital and Mexico City in an advisory role.
“Mexico has accumulated achievements, it’s delivered lives, enormous sacrifices,” Naranjo told reporters last month. “Security, understood as a democratic value, is expressed in policies that are totally inclusive, that protect everyone.”
How closely the Obama administration has been working with Peña Nieto – and his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has been out of power since 2000 – is a matter of speculation.
Rear Adm. Colin Kilrain, a former senior commander of the U.S. Navy’s special forces, who worked on anti-terrorism for the National Security Council in 2011, was appointed to the post of military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in February 2012.
For Calderon, who is now a lame-duck president, and desperately wants to be vindicated by carrying out a series of “death blows” to the remaining cartel leaders, it is imperative that the next five months include a series of bold, aggressive and successful military strikes against the eight major drug organizations. For the newly elected president, it is preferable that this blitzkreig take place before being sworn in in December in order to distance the new administration from a war that has bloodied Mexico’s international image.
For the Obama administration it is imperative that the surge over the next few months – not unlike the strategy the United States pursued in Iraq and now in Afghanistan – strike mortal blows against the Mexican drug cartels one year after Obama’s achievement in taking down Osama bin Laden.
In this sense, a bold series of strikes against Mexico’s drug cartels would be a win-win-win strategy for Felipe Calderon, Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama.
Seldom do such opportunities present themselves.