MEXICO CITY – A top official in Mexico's new government on Monday harshly criticized the country's U.S.-backed attack on drug cartel leaders for causing violence to surge, even as the incoming team offered an alternate security strategy largely devoid of details.
Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong opened a meeting of the National Security Council saying that under the strategy of former President Felipe Calderon, who left office Dec. 1, "financial resources dedicated to security have more than doubled but unfortunately crime has increased."
With the capture of dozens of drug capos, an achievement trumpeted by Calderon, "we have moved from a scheme of vertical leadership to a horizontal one that has made them more violent and much more dangerous," Osorio told the heads of the military and the governors of Mexico's 31 states.
"The rate of increase in homicides places us among the highest in the world," he said. "In recent years, because of the violence linked to organized crime, thousands of people have died and thousands of people have disappeared."
Calderon repeatedly said before leaving office that his forces had captured 25 of Mexico's 37 most-wanted drug lords, a strategy backed by the U.S. government with hundreds of millions in funding and close cooperation with American law-enforcement, military and intelligence agencies.
Osorio Chong and President Enrique Pena Nieto have promised to adjust Calderon's strategy in order to move away from a focus on killing and capturing cartel leaders and toward a focus on reducing crimes against ordinary citizens, most important homicides, kidnappings and extortion.
Nearly three weeks into their administration, they have offered few details on how they will actually do that. At Monday's meeting, they offered a few more specifics, but there was no indication of any grand readjustment in Mexico's security policy.
The administration said it would divide Mexico into five regions for the purposes of security planning, allowing them to design tactics specific to problems that vary widely across Mexico. It did not, however, say what those five regions would be.
Pena Nieto told the meeting that he would launch a new body of paramilitary police, based in large part of European forces known as gendarmerie, by enlisting 10,000 officers. He offered no time line, or indication of where those officers would be recruited from.
"I am convinced that we're opening a new path, a new route and a new way to address the security of the Mexican people," he said.
The administration has previously estimated the eventual size of the gendarmerie at around 40,000 officers, a force that, if successful, would allow Mexico to reduce the number of soldiers and marines used to fight crime. Calderon's widespread deployment of the military for traditionally civilian police purposes has been criticized for provoking needless bloodshed and spawning thousands of complaints of human rights violations by troops.
Pena Nieto also said his government would be creating 15 special units of the federal police dedicated to fighting extortion and kidnapping, an apparent vote of confidence in a force tainted by a recent series of scandals. Calderon made the growth and expansion of the federal police a centerpiece of his security strategy. After scandals including a drug-related shootout between federal police at Mexico City's airport, and an attempt by federal officers to kill two CIA agents outside the city of Cuernavaca, Pena Nieto eliminated the federal police as a free-standing agency and folded the force into Osorio Chong's Department of the Interior.
Osorio Chong said that under Calderon, kidnapping had increased 83 percent, violent robberies by 65 percent, extortion by 40 percent, sex crimes by 16 percent and highway robberies by 100 percent.
In his address, he offered no figures for the number of dead during the previous presidential term, but a written copy of his remarks said that some 70,000 people had been killed and at least 9,000 unidentified bodies had been found.
Those numbers far exceed the last official figure of 47,500 drug-war dead released under Calderon, whose government stopped releasing an official count in September of last year.
The exact figures were crossed out by hand in copies of Osorio Chong's speech provided to reporters and replaced by the less specific "thousands of people" dead and disappeared.
Members of Pena Nieto's staff said the exact figures had been crossed out at the request of Osorio Chong's office but did not offer details.
The number of drug-related homicides has been a point of contention among the Mexican government and its critics, with human-rights groups and other outside observers saying they believed the number to be far higher than Calderon's last official figure.
In August, Calderon told the National Public Security Council that homicides linked to organized crime had dropped 15 percent nationwide in the first six months of 2012, without providing any specific figures details on the source of his figures. In response to an open records request from The Associated Press, the Mexican government said Monday that Calderon had based his statement on figures showing a 15 percent reduction in all intentional homicides in only six states with a heavy presence of organized crime — Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Baja California, Sinaloa, Zacatecas and Coahuila.
Calderon has become a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government since leaving office. Asked about Calderon's use of the apparently misleading figures, the Kennedy School referred questions to Calderon's former spokesman, who declined to comment.