Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto delivers a speech at the National Palace in Mexico City in October 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in Mexico a year ago, he promised a new approach to the country’s drug cartels. His predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had declared a “war on drugs” in 2007, with disastrous results. More than 70,000 people were killed and 26,000 more were “disappeared” by the security forces or reported missing.

For many in Mexico, it mattered little that Mr Peña Nieto provided few details on how he would end the “war”, only that he would. Indeed, no issue was more important to his election. Mr Peña Nieto pledged to broaden his agenda to energy, labour and education reforms.

The bluntness with which he and his cabinet identified the flaws of Mr Calderón’s strategy – which relied almost entirely on using ill-trained and abusive security forces to tackle organised crime – gave hope that they might change approach.

Mr Peña Nieto himself argued that ensuring soldiers and police respect human rights is a critical to, not an obstacle to, improving security. The new administration also recognised that efforts to professionalise security forces had to go hand-in-hand with training more effective prosecutors to conduct investigations aimed at dismantling the cartels.

That Mr Peña Nieto seemed to recognise the mistakes of the “war” makes it all the more perplexing that he has repeated them. Take the state of Michoacán: when drug violence skyrocketed early in Mr Peña Nieto’s term, his solution was to rely on the same problematic security forces. He dispatched thousands of soldiers without a clear mission, timetable for withdrawal, civilian oversight or appropriate training. Michoacán was, Mexicans noted, the first place Mr Calderón sent troops.

Unsurprisingly, this approach failed. In October, co-ordinated 
cartel attacks on power stations left half a million people in Michoacán in darkness. In November, the Catholic bishop there published an open letter calling it a “failed state”. So Mr Peña Nieto sent more soldiers and police.

How to explain this adherence to a failed policy? One possibility is that he believes the security crisis is too big to fix – so he is focusing on other areas, such as the economy, where he believes he can achieve change. Without question, Mexico is short on trustworthy law enforcement and justice officials. And the cartels are increasingly sophisticated. But just because these problems are entrenched does not mean they are insurmountable. On the contrary, Mr Peña Nieto has tools at his disposal to improve the way the government fights crime. The problem is he is not using them.

Take the broken justice system, in which 98 per cent of reported crimes last year went unpunished. In 2008, Mexico passed a bold plan to move from an opaque system – in which most judges make decisions based solely on written reports – to public trials where the judges can see and hear from the accused. The reform was designed to eradicate many of the worst practices of the old system, in which investigating crimes largely involved beating confessions out of suspects. Yet Mr Peña Nieto has put almost no resources or political weight behind the effort. The rollout has been so incompetent in parts of Mexico that some have begun to see the new system as a tool to protect criminals rather than deliver justice.

Another possibility is that, by perpetuating the military’s sprawling authority and forgoing investigations into Calderón-era abuses, Mr Peña Nieto has secured the support of the army and his political opposition for the rest of his agenda. But when it comes to security versus other reforms, it is not an either-or proposition.

It is hard to improve schools when teachers have to pay a portion of their salaries to the cartels, as in Guerrero state during the Calderón years. Energy companies will be less inclined to invest in a country where – the Peña Nieto administration reported in July – illegal taps of pipelines have doubled in the past year, mostly thanks to organised crime.

Indeed, if his government continues to embrace a “war on drugs” in all but name, Mr Peña Nieto may soon find much of his reform agenda undermined by the security policy he left in place. And, as his first year shows, the devastating human toll of the continuing violence and abuse will continue to mount.