Michoacán and Public Policy: Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste

Many thanks to Gabriella Sánchez for her interesting take on the local roots of the conflict in Michoacán, which serves not only as a dramatic example of public safety issues boiling over but also for the way it speaks to a number of public policy areas simultaneously, including environmental, agricultural and even fiscal policies, among others. Most directly, of course, the crisis brings attention on Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s security policy, anchored by a focus on reducing violence, centralizing federal security efforts, a new communications policy and creating a national gendarmerie (I would highly recommend viewing analyst Alejandro Hope’s excellent review of the policy during the Mexico Institute’s recent event, “The State of Citizen Security in Mexico: The Pena Nieto Administration’s First Year in Review.”). In fact, watch the entire video.

The crisis in Michoacán has touched off a tremendous discussion in Mexico over what the next steps should be. The Saturday Los Angeles Times piece by Richard Fausset is one of the better articles in English on the crisis, with a focus on the difficult options for Mexican federal, state and local officials. To wit: How do federal forces work together with the grupos de autodefensa? Should Mexico incorporate some or all of the vigilante groups into formal law enforcement? What is to be done about the government officials who aided and abetted the Knights Templars? In other words, extremely tough public policy questions, but an impressive range of ideas from analysts that have the potential to impact the issues going forward. “Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” to quote Rahm Emanuel.

Though Michoacán is located hundreds of miles south of Mexico’s border with the United States and by no means has a direct impact on U.S. security, it does raise comparisons to the (binational) response to the violence in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez during the truly dark days of 2009-2011. The security situation in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez is now much improved; in both cities, the role of civic organizations and detailed state-federal political and policy agreements were critical factors in bringing the city back from the brink. The multi-issue, multi-level response to border security challenges is a clear indication that Mexico is more than capable of addressing security issues. These are solvable problems in the medium-term that require strong initial investment and then a willingness to take on significant institutional change.

Of course, a number of critically important security areas in Mexico need continuing attention, including public participation, police reform and judicial reform. Successfully addressing these issues will positively impact U.S.-Mexico border security, as Eric Olson and I wrote in our chapter on security in the State of the Border Report. Binational collaboration can help to a degree in certain specific areas, and through the Mérida Initiative, the United States has invested in rule of law efforts in Mexico, including trainings for Mexican judges, prosecutors, forensic experts and police coordinated by the Conference of Western Attorneys General. Our 2011 report on binational anti-human trafficking cooperation efforts highlighted some additional and important collaborative work on an issue of mutual importance to both governments.

Public security in Mexico is a complex topic of immense importance for Mexico and, indirectly, the United States and Central America. A quick list of recommended work in English in this area includes David Shirk’s recent policy piece on the state of public security in Mexico, Daniel Sabet’s Police Reform in Mexico: Informal Politics and the Challenge of Institutional Change and Robert Donnelly and David Shirk’s Police and Public Security in Mexico. In Mexico, the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad, CIDAC and México Evalúa are among many non-governmental groups doing important work in this area.