“I warned Mexico that citizens would take up arms”

Colombian General Óscar Naranjo completes his duties as special security advisor in Mexico

Salvador Camarena
General Óscar Naranjo.
General Óscar Naranjo.SAÚL RUIZ

After serving nearly two years as a special security advisor to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Colombian General Óscar Naranjo says that the biggest challenge facing the country is to reduce the dramatic number of unsolved murders.

The impunity, Naranjo said, allows the unpunished guilty party to believe that he can continue killing people.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, the former director of Colombia’s national police force responded to charges that have been lodged by Mexico’s leftist groups that he is responsible for the surge in self-defense forces in Michoacán and other states. They have also demanded to know how much he has been paid by the Mexican government.

“I have not cost the public treasury one peso,” said Naranjo, who became Peña Nieto’s special security advisor when the president was still a candidate.

I have not cost the public treasury one peso"

“As for the self-defense forces, [the allegations lodged against him] seems to me to be a contradiction because [...] from the first moment I arrived, I noticed that the biggest challenge for Mexico was to contain the public’s outrage, which could transform into armed indignation so that citizens can defend themselves, because of the state’s difficulties in protecting them.”

Question. In terms of violence, what does Mexico’s future look like for the rest of Peña Nieto’s term?

Answer. I think that in Mexico, there have been many things that have happened, which, in the end, are the most important. In my opinion, the biggest criminals – the cartel chiefs – have had to abandon their comfort zones and today are fugitives from justice. Just a few years ago, those criminals were highly visible in society, and to some extent, were tolerated. Today, the most important thing is that Mexicans have rejected that drug-trafficking model.

Secondly, I think Mexico has strengthened its institutional capacities. Mexico has close to 1,300 police squads but just six or seven years ago the Mexican Federal Police was highly deficient. With the restructuring of the Federal Police force today, it has improved its capabilities to battle crime with better intelligence resources, mobility and professionalism. The challenge now lies in how to bring 400,000 officers in those 1,300 squads up to professional standards, and to coordinate them with municipal and local police forces. But I think there have been some advances made in that area. What I predict for Mexico is that it will come out ahead if its citizens decide – and should be supported by the government’s policy – to say “no to the mafia.”

What I predict for Mexico is that it will come out ahead if its citizens decide"

Q. What has been your contribution and what has been your experience serving as an advisor?

A. I’ll answer that question first by saying that as a foreigner I respected the Mexican institutions and laws of a country where a foreigner’s role is limited in participating and making internal decisions. Secondly, with a great deal of humility, I recognize that the role of an advisor always leaves doubts about the real impact he has made, such as in security, where in one year and a half I had a lot of time to remind Mexican citizens that I was not an advisor in strategic issues, or carrying out operations or immersed in high-level decisions. I reminded them that I was simply a voice that provided some level of reflection and inspiration for Mexico. In the end, it is the Mexicans who will find the solutions; an outside advisor cannot do this except help explore the roads that help lead to these solutions.

Based on my own experiences, I was a very strong critic of the fact that public security policy was referred to as “a war,” because what that does is to create an atmosphere of animosity where the criminal is viewed as an enemy that needs to be eliminated. But in a democratic society a criminal is not an enemy that need to be eliminated; he is a person that needs to be rescued and rehabilitated.

Q. The left received you badly and is giving you a similar send-off. Jesús Zambrano, president of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), and other members have asked how much you were being paid, and if you were behind the surge of the self-defense forces.

A. I have total respect for those statements, which are legitimate. On these issues it is fair for politicians of whatever faction to raise their voices and criticize, and I accept that. In terms of the questions, I must say that I have not cost the public treasury one peso but it is up to the government to make this clarification. I am not on the public payroll and never have been.

Q. Your work was done pro bono?

A. Yes, that is the way it was. As for the self-defense forces, we in Colombia dismantled the paramilitary model. I was in charge of fighting paramilitaries, which were the last remnants of the drug cartels. We did not create or promote that idea.

Q. The government just released an eight-point plan to legalize the self-defense forces in Michoacán. Based on what you just said, then, you are not in favor of this plan?

A. I am going to apologize for not answering that question. I don’t want to enter in a debate without knowing the terms of the agreements. I only know what has been said publicly about it in the last few days. But I would say that any effort to normalize a situation so that the law prevails is the priority. A government cannot discard or renounce the three standards for a state of law, which are: [the state] is the only one who can use force, put citizens on trial and demand retributions. If a government cannot follow through with these three components, then you have an abnormal situation.

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