BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The top security adviser for Mexico's next president said Friday that he is recommending the creation of elite units of police and troops who will target not just major drug traffickers but also lower-level cartel hitmen as a way of swiftly reducing violence.
The proposal newly retired Colombian police director Gen. Oscar Naranjo explained in an interview with The Associated Press offers a glimpse of how President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto might fulfill his promise to slash the number of murders and kidnappings by 50 percent during his six years in office.
Similar to the approach that Naranjo employed against Colombian traffickers, the proposal raises the question of whether the widely respected general can reproduce his success in a very different country.
More than 47,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against Mexico's cartels nearly six years ago.
Pena Nieto has pledged to reduce violence by refocusing law-enforcement efforts away from the current administration's heavy reliance on the military to capture drug-cartel leaders and seize their product. He says he wants to better protect ordinary citizens from criminals.
He provided few specifics during his three-month campaign, leading to speculation he would ease pressure on traffickers as long as they throttled down violence.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the Laredo, Texas, Democrat who has held a series of meetings with the president-elect and his advisers, told the AP this week that Pena Nieto has discussed a new offensive against the smaller, local gangs that have cropped up in many Mexican states and earn money through kidnapping and extortion in addition to drug dealing.
Naranjo's proposal of small elite units dovetails with that idea.
Such units have specific goals and typically work in isolation. The better a unit performs, the more resources it gets. Information is compartmentalized to prevent leaks. The model worked in Colombia and Naranjo said it could also be effective in Mexico.
Such units, which Naranjo said could be comprised in Mexico of the Army, Navy and police, should pursue not just of "high-value targets" such as Sinaloa and Zeta cartel bosses, said Naranjo, who retired June 12 after five years atop his country's 170,000-member police.
"It's good to go after drug dealers in order to capture them. But it's not good not to have elite groups going after killers in order to impose the law, those squads of hitmen," he said. "You also have to put a lot of importance on these groups of hitman to control the violence."
The idea has been discussed by Mexico's security experts, and makes sense as a component of a broader strategy to reduce violence, said Eric Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
"If you want to really stop the violence, don't focus on the kingpins, focus on the killers, it kind of eliminates this middle range of actors," he said.