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Oscar Naranjo, drug war hero in Colombia, tapped for post in Mexico

The leading presidential candidate in Mexico has tapped a drug war hero from Colombia as a security adviser in a move designed to assuage U.S. concerns about his resolve to fight organized crime.

Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party said he had contracted retired Gen. Oscar Naranjo because “Mexicans want immediate results” in bringing down violence.

Naranjo, who announced his retirement in April as Colombia’s national police chief, brings strategic knowledge about how to take down narcotics kingpins and enjoys excellent contacts in Washington.

“He has a sterling reputation in the administration, almost unassailable,” said Adam Isacson, a military security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a social justice advocacy group.

Pena Nieto’s party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, has been wracked by both historic and recent allegations that key figures have protected or colluded with organized crime figures.

Yet opinion polls say the PRI will recapture the presidency in July 1 elections and expand its power at both the congressional and state level. Many Mexicans are weary of the soaring deaths that coincided with the policy of all-out confrontation with drug cartels that President Felipe Calderon and his center-right National Action Party undertook beginning in late 2006. The death toll is believed to have soared past 50,000 during Calderon’s six-year term.

Pena Nieto has been vague about his security policy, asserting that his team would increase efficiency against crime groups. He told a news conference Wednesday that he sees opportunities to collaborate with Washington and that his priority will be to reduce the violence that has caused “anguish and lack of tranquility among Mexicans.” Naranjo, he said, brings “proven and successful strategies” from Colombia, where he helped take down leaders of the Medellin, Cali and Norte del Valle cartels.

Naranjo, as a Colombian citizen, said he would not have operational command over the federal police in Mexico – at about 45,000, a much smaller force than the 170,000 who make up the Colombian National Police. Instead, he would consult on strategic matters, likely sharing ideas for capturing drug kingpins and making citizens feel safer. He also is likely to reassure U.S. policymakers who have deepened collaboration with Mexico under Calderon.

Asked if he would target either of Mexico’s two largest crime groups, the Sinaloa Cartel or the Zetas, with greater emphasis, Naranjo said Thursday evening at an event with Pena Nieto: “There are no good and bad criminals. ... You cannot have asymmetry in treating criminal gangs.”

Three former PRI governors in the state of Tamaulipas are under criminal investigation, and a former PRI governor of Veracruz state is alleged to have such close ties to the Zetas that some state residents bitterly refer to him as “Zeta-1.”

Naranjo, who announced his resignation in Colombia in late April but stays in his post until July, would take some risk in assuming the Mexican role. As one of Colombia’s most popular public figures, he is touted as having a political future, possibly as a vice presidential candidate, in his homeland. But if the PRI wins the presidency and fails to deliver on security matters or faces new corruption charges, Naranjo’s reputation could be hurt, Isacson said.

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