MEXICO CITY (AP) — Two months after President Enrique Pena Nieto took office promising to reduce violent crime, the killings linked to Mexico's drug cartels continue unabated.
Only the government's talk about them has dropped.
Eighteen members of a band and its retinue were kidnapped and apparently slain over the weekend in the northern border state of Nuevo Leon by gunmen who asked them to name their cartel affiliation before they were shot and dumped in a well. Fourteen prisoners and nine guards died in an attempted prison escape in Durango state. Nine men were slain Christmas eve in Sinaloa. In the state of Mexico, which borders the capital, more than a dozen bodies were found last week, some dismembered.
The difference under this administration is that there have been no major press conferences announcing more troops or federal police for drug-plagued hotspots. Gone are the regular parades of newly arrested drug suspects before the media with their weapons, cash or contraband.
Pena Nieto has been mum, instead touting education, fiscal and energy reforms. On Monday, he told a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Chile that he wants Mexico to focus on being a player in solving world and regional problems.
Some political observers praise him for trying to change the conversation and presenting an alternative face of Mexico. Critics suggest the country's new leaders believe that the best way to solve a security crisis is to create distractions.
"What Pena Nieto is doing is ... sweeping violence under the rug in hopes that no one notices," said security expert Jorge Chabat. "It can be effective in the short term, until the violence becomes so obvious that you can't change the subject."
The Pena Nieto government declined to respond publicly to the critics. But in an interview last month with The Associated Press, he said he would not put any goals or deadlines on his campaign against organized crime and would focus on prevention.
"That way we avoid generating fertile ground where violence and insecurity can keep growing," Pena Nieto said.
Secretary of Interior Jose Osorio Chong had a closed-door meeting with the governors of Mexico's central states about security on Monday. In a press conference afterward, he promised to increase patrols along a highway system already bristling with military and police roadblocks and checkpoints.
The apparent weekend killing of 18 members of Kombo Kolombia, which had played at a private performance late Thursday, was the largest mass kidnapping and killing since 20 tourists disappeared and were later found dead in 2011 near the resort city of Acapulco. Searchers this week were pulling bodies from a well in northern Mexico that they said likely belonged to the band.
An area known as the Laguna, where Coahuila and Durango states meet, has been the scene of numerous battles between factions of the Sinaloa and the Zetas cartels.
The State of Mexico has had 70 slayings so far this year, according to Gov. Eruviel Avila. La Familia has moved in from the neighboring state of Michoacan and is fighting for territory with a smaller gang known as the United Warriors. Meanwhile, masked vigilantes patrol towns in the southern state of Guerrero on the Pacific coast, where citizens have grown tired of organized crime usurping local authority.
Communications expert Ruben Aguilar said the Pena Nieto government is right to change the focus from security, which had been the main topic throughout the six-year administration of President Felipe Calderon, who left office on Dec. 1.
"On the subject of security, President Calderon went against all logic and turned it into the country's only issue," said Aguilar, who was spokesman for previous President Vicente Fox. "The theme itself is addictive for the media, and generates a negative social mood."
It's difficult to say if drug violence has risen because the government no longer provides numbers, something that started under Calderon, who last released drug-war death statistics in September 2011.
The newspaper Reforma, one of several media outlets that count murders linked to organized crime, said that in December, the first month of the new government, there were 755 drug-related killings, compared to 699 in November. In Calderon's six-year term, some 70,000 people lost their lives to drug violence, the newspaper reported, with at least 20,000 believed missing.
Pena Nieto's election marked the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ran Mexico for 71 years. Under Calderon, violence exploded and cartels splintered. Many Mexicans believed drug violence would start to wane with the return of the PRI, assuming it would negotiate to keep the peace — something party leaders have consistently denied.
Upon taking office Dec. 1, Pena Nieto announced that he would work to restore peace, saying the government would change its security strategy to reducing murders, kidnappings and extortion more than going after cartel leaders . He released a security plan that was not clearly different from Calderon's. Among the few specifics was a plan to establish a gendarmerie to patrol dangerous areas, a force that will take several years to build. Meanwhile he is keeping the military on the streets, just as Calderon did.
The Pena Nieto government also said that it will only talk about violence in terms of "hard data."
Eduardo Sánchez, the undersecretary for media in the Interior Ministry, told Mexico's official news agency last week that the federal government will no longer present detainees to the media or mention prisoners' aliases — be it "the Squirrel" or "El Brad Pitt" — a highly criticized practice under Calderon.
The idea, Sanchez said, is to avoid glorifying violence, which is already celebrated in some circles through music and clothing styles.
"We don't want the youth in this country to feel like crime is attractive or a good place in increase your social economic status," Sanchez told local reporters last week.
He said the government has arrested 854 people for drug-related crimes its first month in office, and said 69 criminals were killed in confrontations with the armed forces. But he would not say to which organized crime groups they belonged or the circumstances of their deaths or capture.
Carlos Reyes, spokesman for the congressional delegation of the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, was critical of the new approach.
"The actions of the government need to be transparent in terms of being precise about the level of the problem and how you're going to address it, not evade or disguise it," he said.
Edna Jaime, director of the policy analysis firm Mexico Evaluates, it's too early to criticize the new government's approach.
"The dynamic of violence is not going to change in a month or a month and half," she said, though she added that the government should have a strategy by now. The narrative will change "when it's accompanied by real change," she added.