A Tough Choice for Mexico

(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Enrique Peña Nieto, presidential candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, Saturday, April 28, 2012. Mexico will hold presidential elections on July 1.

It may barely make a blip on our political radar screen, but on July 1 Mexico is slated to elect a new president for the next six years. Plagued by out-of control violence and chronic poverty, the country is in desperate need of new leadership. Yet holding a commanding lead in the polls is Enrique Peña Nieto, an old-guard candidate of the discredited Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI), which ran the county as a one-party dictatorship for 70 years before being ousted in 2000. 

Peña Nieto is telegenic and has a TV star wife. But he has little political charisma, a scandalous personal life (at least two acknowledged illegitimate children), a modest intellect, and an undistinguished record. His party remains mired in corruption. Nevertheless, for many Mexicans he represents the country’s last chance to pull back from the brink of the chaos to which it was brought by the current president Felipe Calderón. 

Calderón, of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), took office in December 2006 amid charges that he had stolen the election. Under pressure to legitimize himself as a leader, Calderón declared a “war” against Mexico’s drug cartels—with the enthusiastic support of the U.S. government. The result was to transform a serious police problem into a national disaster. Over 50,000 people have been killed, criminal violence has spread, and the economic and social fabric of large parts of the country has been shredded. 

Mexico had been a major exporter of drugs to the U.S. for at least a century. Producing and transporting marijuana was one of the few ladders of upward mobility available for poor, uneducated and ambitious young men. The attitude of the PRI governments was: “Sell what you want to the North Americans—that’s their problem. But no violence here, don’t sell to our kids…and of course give us a little percentage of the take.” 

Then, in 1993, two events vastly increased the profitability of the Mexican drug business. One was the breakup of the Columbia cartels after the death of kingpin Pablo Escobar. The other was the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that made overland drug smuggling to the U.S. easier, not just for marijuana, but also for cocaine from Columbia and other parts of South America that had previously been shipped to the U.S. by more expensive sea routes over the Caribbean and up the eastern seaboard. Soon Mexico was supplying 90 percent of the U.S. market. But as the profits soared, the Mexican cartels split into warring factions, hiring ex-soldiers, policemen, and psychopathic thugs to do the dirty work with weapons imported from the largely unregulated U.S. arms dealers.

Still, these were mostly fights among rival gangs with little effect on the average Mexican. But when Calderón declared war, the criminal class broke out of its cage. The under-trained and under-equipped local and state police—many of whom were already on one or another drug lord’s payroll—were no match for the narcos. Calderón then sent in the army, with the U.S. offering military equipment and training. But the army has also been infiltrated by the drug cartels. So Calderón’s war has become a confused fog of violence in which it is almost impossible to tell if a given assassination, bombing, or shoot-out represents the government battling the narcos or the narcos battling each other with the police and the army taking sides.

The deadly anarchy expanded in 2010 when the Zetas, renegade ex-solders and police who had worked for the cartels, broke away to form their own rival organization. Unlike the traditional “business” narco-traffickers, mostly concerned with supplying the U.S. drug market, the Zetas are a full service criminal gang—kidnapping, robbery, extortion, and mass murder with unspeakable brutality. They’ve left corpses beheaded, dismembered, and hung from highway bridges. The victims are no longer just rival gang members, soldiers, or police. They include ordinary businesspeople, local officials, journalists, human-rights lawyers, immigrants from Central America and innocent by-standers. 

The culture of violence feeds on itself. As if the Zetas are not bad enough, gangs of unaffiliated imitators have sprung up to terrorize smaller urban neighborhoods and rural areas. Moreover, soldiers are trained to kill, not to keep order on the streets. When Calderón sent in the army to replace the local police, there was a huge jump in both human-rights abuses by soldiers and an increase in street crime. 

Sections of the country remain relatively peaceful. Although tourists have been frightened off, Americans and other foreigners have not been targeted. And the large multinational corporations in Mexico for the cheap labor are able to pay for protection. But close to half of Mexico’s 31 states—those in the north and central part of the country—have become or are close to becoming, “failed states,” i.e., places where the government has lost control over the use of force. In Monterrey, Tampico and other cities that until recently were thriving business centers, businesspeople are fleeing to Texas and southern Mexico with their families with as much capital as they can get out.

Enter Peña Nieto. The latest polls show him with almost 50 percent of the vote, with Josefina Vásquez Mota of Calderón’s PAN and Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) roughly tied at a little less than 25 percent a piece. Peña Nieto and Vasquez Mota both say they support Calderón’s War with some minor tactical variation. López Obrador—who claims Calderón robbed him of the presidency in 2006—differs. He promises to take the army off the streets within six months, clean out corrupt government, and attack the root cause of lawlessness: joblessness and poverty. But López Obrador suffers from his unpopular decision to clog downtown Mexico City—the PRD’s own electoral base—with protest demonstrations for six months after the last election, and a crippling split within his party.

Peña Nieto says he represents a “new” PRI. But his new PRI looks pretty much like the old PRI—corrupt, authoritarian, and still connected to the narcos. Ironically, that may well be the secret of his appeal.

Most Mexicans believe that their army and police are losing the narco war. They also know that the United States will not eliminate the twin root causes of the problem: the black market for illegal drugs and the flow of deadly weapons from U.S. dealers to the Mexican criminal gangs. For many, therefore, the best of a set of bad options is to return to the old bargain between the PRI and the drug traffickers. However unsavory, it at least protected the ordinary citizen. In its updated version, the army and the business cartels would form an alliance to rid the county of the Zetas and Zeta-like gangs, and the government would agree to stop interfering with the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. 

No government, of course, could openly make a deal with criminal organizations. Two years ago, newspapers ran an open letter suggesting such an alliance to Calderón from the leaders of La Familia, the cartel dominating the state of Michoacán. Calderón rejected it, but it is likely that that at various levels a conversation between the government and the business narcos continues. 

A pact with the narcos is also something that most Mexican citizens would rather not contemplate. Still, it is supported openly by over twenty percent in the polls, and probably a majority would accept such deal so long as they didn’t have to acknowledge it. The politics of such a deal therefore would have to be hypocritical, secretive and cynical—exactly what the PRI is noted for. So when Peña Nieto says he supports Calderón’s war against the narcos, but that stopping the violence is more important than stopping the drug traffic, he is reminding the voters that they can trust the PRI to do whatever has to be done. No questions asked.

Even so, the clock will not be easily turned back. In the old days, market power in the illegal drugs business was concentrated, so that informal agreements with the government could be enforced by a few people who knew and trusted each other. Today, the market is fragmented and the leadership unstable. 

Moreover, a sustainable peace pact that left the narco-traffickers free to ship their product north would trigger a furious reaction from the U.S. government, on which the Mexican armed forces have become increasingly dependent for military equipment and intelligence services. 

But the alterative may be worse—an escalated war, backed by the Pentagon and the CIA, in which parts of the country are treated like enemy territory. The likely result would be more killing, the suspension of democracy and human rights and more economic and social turmoil. 

There are no good choices for Mexico. And whatever scenario unfolds, given the deepened social and economic integration between the two countries and the bankruptcy of U.S. drug policy, the consequences will surely be felt this side of the 2,000 mile porous border.

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