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Mexico sees hope among drug violence

By Rafael Romo, CNN
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Mexico sees way to reduce killings
  • Mexican national security spokesman says killings down in last trimester 2010, despite record high for year
  • He says targeting crime bosses and hiring more security forces is beginning to get results
  • He said the availability of high-powered guns in the U.S. for Mexican criminals is hurting bilateral security
  • And he added cross-border relations were significant, fruitful and productive

(CNN) -- He's the face and voice of Mexico's strategy against drug trafficking and organized crime. In his capacity as national security spokesman, Alejandro Poire has the unenviable task of telling Mexicans -- and the world -- about his government's fight against organized crime, which have been widely criticized. CNN's Rafael Romo asked Poire 10 questions about the status of Mexico's war on drugs.

More than 34,000 people have died in drug-related violence during the four years that President Felipe Calderon has been in power. Based on your own estimates, last year was the worst with 15,273 deaths. Is violence in Mexico out of control?

The level of violence last year was the highest that we have had in a long time, but it is also the case that towards the end of the last year and the last trimester we saw a significant decrease in the number of deaths overall in Mexico. We have a comprehensive strategy and we have shown significant successes.

We have seen an increase in violent incidents in places like Acapulco, which used to be safe. How widespread is violence in Mexico?

Violence is heavily concentrated. Fifty percent of all deaths last year in Mexico happened in only three out of 32 states in the country -- Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. Thirty percent occurred in the state of Chihuahua and one of every five in Ciudad Juarez [across the border from El Paso, Texas].

2010: Witness to violence: Juarez

Is it time to change Mexico's anti-drug strategy?

We can get a hold of this violence. We have shown it in other parts of the country and we will do it because we have a comprehensive strategy to address crime and violence.

Can you mention a place where the current strategy is working?

In Tijuana we saw a very significant upsurge in violence during the year 2008. But thanks to a very strong presence of the federal forces, the increase in intelligence capabilities, and the very good coordination with state and local authorities, the level of violence has gone down, as well as kidnappings, car thefts, and extortion.

Mexican police are often overwhelmed by the drug cartels which often have more powerful weapons. What has your government done to strengthen police agencies?

We began the administration with less than 6,500 federal police officers. Now we have over 35,000 with 7,000 of them having college degrees from the top universities in Mexico. These are all policemen that are vetted on a systematic basis. They can be excluded from the forces if they have any type of misconduct. Three-thousand were dismissed last year for that reason.

In what ways has the current strategy been effective?

In March 2009, we announced that we were looking for 37 of the most wanted and dangerous criminals in Mexico, the leaders of organizations which have grown significantly over time and have very significant logistical and organizational capabilities. To date, we have detained or brought down 20 out of this 37 criminals and that's just one aspect of this strategy. We are significantly weakening these organizations.

President Calderon has said that the United States demand for drugs fuels violence in Mexico. Has this negatively affected the relationship?

We have a very significant and very fruitful and productive relationship, but indeed we have significant areas of opportunity. It is clear that the availability of high-powered guns in the United States for Mexican criminals is hurting bilateral security. We would hope to see an overwhelming response from the United States government to prevent these guns from getting into Mexico.

Is it time for a Plan Mexico just as it was time for a Plan Colombia 10 years ago?

We have the Merida Initiative and the most important part of it is that it recognizes our [Mexico and the United States] shared responsibility. It began during the Bush administration, at the urging of President Calderon. The Obama administration has supported it as well and agrees with the concept of shared responsibility. As we like to say, it takes two to tango.

What do you say to Mexicans who are suffering the effects of violence?

We understand and share the feeling of frustration of people who live in certain areas of our country. President Calderon has responded with a very significant and comprehensive strategy from the beginning of his administration. We have listened to proposals by civil groups. From those proposals, we have sent [anti-drug] initiatives to congress to address the illegal flow of money and improve police forces.

Other than law enforcement, what are you doing to curb violence in Mexico?

We have opened up 75 new universities during the current administration. The number of young Mexicans with access to a high school education has increased by one million. We have also opened 330 drug rehabilitation centers and implemented drug prevention programs in 20,000 schools around the country. We have also launched a reform of our judicial system to make it more transparent and efficient.