MEXICO CITY — Mexico's new administration offered the first details on Tuesday of a long-touted shift in the country's war on drugs, saying the government will spend $9.2 billion this year on social programs meant to keep young people from joining criminal organizations in the 251 most violent towns and neighborhoods across the country.
The government will flood those areas with spending on programs ranging from road-building to increasing school hours, President Enrique Pena Nieto and Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told an audience in the central state of Aguascalientes.
"It's clear that we must put special emphasis on prevention, because we can't only keep employing more sophisticated weapons, better equipment, more police, a higher presence of the armed forces in the country as the only form of combating organized crime," Pena Nieto said.
The rhetoric of the announcement was a forceful rejection of Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon, who deployed thousands of troops to battle cartel gunmen and frequently boasted of the number of drug-gang leaders arrested and killed on his watch. But the speeches by Pena Nieto and Osorio Chong contained few specifics more than two months into a presidency marred by continuing violence in many states and a headline-grabbing series of horrifying crimes, including the kidnapping and slaying of an entire 17-member band near the northern city of Monterrey and the gang rape of six Spanish tourists in the resort city of Acapulco.
Analysts said the strategy, to be carried out by nine federal departments coordinated by a new Interagency Commission for the Prevention of Violence and Criminality, marked an important change in tone but not necessarily in the day-to-day reality of Mexico's battle against drug cartels.
"They're going to throw a lot of money at a lot of programs. That is ground for skepticism," said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former high-ranking official in Mexico's national intelligence agency. "The level of specificity is not there yet. I find this disconcerting."
Officials released a partial list of the communities to be targeted by the program, which range from violent Acapulco to the relatively peaceful city of Oaxaca. It was unclear how much of the money was funding that had already been announced as part of other programs. Osorio Chong and Pena Nieto said the anti-crime program would overlap with a national anti-hunger initiative that was announced last month and is meant to aid more than 7 million hungry Mexicans in 400 of the country's poorest municipalities.
"The focus isn't new, but in Calderon's case it was much more of secondary importance, and at least the announcement today in Aguascalientes is about prioritizing the focus on prevention over punishment," said Erubiel Tirado, coordinator of the national security program at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
Osorio Chong said the anti-violence efforts would include better park grounds and lighting; improved health and social services; services to find jobs for single mothers; more arts and culture in schools; job creation through road improvement projects; a national campaign to promote a "culture of peace" by lowering school and domestic violence, and preventing and treating drug addiction. Pena Nieto emphasized previously announced government plans to increase from 6,000 to 40,000 the number of schools that have a full, eight-hour academic day instead of ending classes around midday.
"This is the first state policy that puts the citizen, and our youth, at the center of security," Osorio Chong said. "We're convinced that fighting and punishment don't solve the problem."
Some analysts and U.S. lawmakers have interpreted the Pena Nieto government's rhetoric about a strategic shift as a veiled offer to ease back on drug cartels that don't engage in violence, returning Mexico to the days of lower violence and a more laissez-faire attitude toward drug smuggling. The Mexican government has denied that it has any intention of relenting in the war on drugs, even as it changes the official tone and emphasis.
"Let's be clear," Osorio Chong said Tuesday. "The state reaffirms its responsibility to purse criminals and punish them in order to keep the peace."