A general takes his leave of Mexico

McClatchy Foreign StaffJanuary 27, 2014 

Armed vigilantes stand at attention during a funeral in Antunez, Mexico, on Jan. 15, 2014.


Gen. Oscar Naranjo Trujillo, a hero of Colombia’s battles against leftist guerrillas, rightwing militias and drug traffickers, has been living off and on in Mexico since the summer of 2012.

It was then that Enrique Pena Nieto, eager to diminish concerns that his incoming government would strike deals with gangsters as a way to lower levels of violence, hired Naranjo as his special advisor. Naranjo’s impeccable image, especially on Capitol Hill in Washington, helped ease concerns that Pena Nieto would seek an accommodation with criminals.

Naranjo, who’d been the national police chief in Colombia, took up residence and an office in Santa Fe, the pricey district in Mexico City’s western reaches.

Naranjo is now returning to his native Colombia. President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted from Davos, Switzerland, last Friday that Naranjo would be helping him with his re-election effort in Colombia. The Pena Nieto government issued a brief statement Sunday offering thanks for “the work of Gen. Naranjo Trujillo, and the contribution he made in designing security strategies for our nation.”

But the departure begs the question: What did Naranjo do while here? What are those security strategies for which Mexicans should be grateful?

I’d known Naranjo when he was a lieutenant colonel in charge of an intelligence unit for the national police of Colombia in the late 1990s, and thought highly of his brave efforts against organized crime. I’d asked to see him here in Mexico but was never successful in getting an appointment.

Still, the question of what counsel Naranjo offered to Pena Nieto is floating in the air. Naranjo’s profile was so low during his tenure in Mexico that the political left began to paint him as a behind-the-scenes architect of the expansion of armed civilian militias in Michoacan state, where 9,000 or so soldiers and federal police now patrol.

The secretary general of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, Alejandro Sanchez, asked just last week for an investigation into Naranjo’s influence on the civilian militias. If a link is proven, he said, Naranjo should be expelled from Mexico.

Admirers of Naranjo immediately leaped to his defense, including Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, who called the allegations “unfounded” and “absurd,” noting that Naranjo had always warned of the dangers of formation of vigilante groups, both in Colombia and in Mexico.

But the broader questions remain: Was Naranjo’s hire simply window dressing? If not, what concretely did he do?

It goes to a larger question about the security strategy of Pena Nieto – indeed, whether there is one. The animalpolitico.com website this morning asks this question of a series of security experts – “Does Mexico have a serious strategy for the conflict in Michoacan?”

The first to respond is Steven Dudley of InsightCrime, a regional security analysis firm. (Full disclosure: Steve is a friend and a fellow former correspondent for the Miami Herald in the Andean region. I’m certain that he also knows Naranjo well.) Here’s how he responded: “Apparently, there is neither a strategy for Michoacan nor for Mexico as a whole. It seems more like an exercise in fighting fires.”

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