Drug cartels and the security issue in the Mexican election

One issue I have not emphasized much in advance of the Mexican presidential and legislative elections is the drug issue, because I don’t think that the issue alone has necessarily driven the resurgence of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the popularity of presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.

But it’s of course a huge issue, especially in the background, and it does account for a lot of the fatigue with outgoing president Felipe Calderón.  William Finnegan in The New Yorker and Patrick Radden Keefe in the The New York Times Magazine both provide amazing accounts in the past week or two, with stunning insights into the Mexican drug cartels: the power of the longtime Sinaloa cartel and its head, Joaquín Guzmán; their rivals, the Zetas (a mutant sect of one-time elite army forces-turned-criminals); and the Calderón administration’s “war” against the drug cartels.

Calderón enlisted Mexico’s military to combat the drug trade in 2006.  The results of that effort have not exactly been successful: an army that’s now distrusted by the citizenry, but not feared by the drug lords; spreading (although still very localized) violence; 55,000 Mexicans dead in six years; and a public that’s generally weary of additional Mexican bloodshed.  But the drug violence is really just one among several issues — lack of progress in reducing corruption, economic reforms, GDP growth and unemployment, lack of further energy development — where the public has gotten frustrated with Calderón and with his predecessor, Vicente Fox, in the 12 years that the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) has held Mexico’s presidency.

You should take the time to read both stories — they provide a fascinating background for Sunday’s general election (and make clear that reducing drug use is a demand-side problem currently in Sisyphean pursuit of a supply-side solution).  But I would caution against using them as the sole prism through which to view Mexican politics, for various reasons.

The drug war is an issue that gets plenty of exposure in the American media space, but probably more exposure than it should.  For much of the past six years, the American media has generally overemphasized the drug violence to the point where many Americans now assume that all of Mexico is a war zone. That’s ridiculous, of course — it should be taken with a grain of salt (or maybe a gram of something stronger), but anecdotally, I get the sense that this is one of several pressing issues in Mexican public life for Mexicans, but not the overweening issue.  Growing the economy, reducing unemployment, further tax reform, labor market reform, reducing corruption, reducing poverty, political reform, trade and foreign relations — all are just as important to Mexicans.

It’s also important to remember that drug violence varies widely by region.   

There’s no disputing that northern Mexico near the U.S. border amounts to basically a war zone — Ciudad Juárez and the state of Chihuahua have been devastated (although Tijuana is less fearsome than its reputation), and Veracruz on the Gulf coast remains dangerous as well.  While drug violence has upended Monterrey, and to some degree Guadalajara, in the north, it has left Mexico City and the densely populated central region of Mexico basically unscathed (where the PRD is still the strongest party).  The violence has also bypassed the extremely rural southern regions of Mexico –Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, etc. — and Yucatán peninsula, including not just the “Riviera Maya” of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, but well into Campeche and Mérida.

Mexico is not exactly a stranger to violent lawlessness, from the Mexican revolution and resulting tumult in the 1910s and the 1920s to the days of Subcomandante Marcos and the peasant uprisings in Chiapas that made southern Mexico so dangerous in the 1990s.  And the drug violence has not merged, and does not seem likely to merge, into a wider ideological civil war, splitting the country in the kind of truly damaging ways that turned Colombia into a failed state in the early 1990s.

So I doubt Mexican voters making their presidential decision solely (or even primarily) on the basis of drug violence, and they certain aren’t turning to Peña Nieto solely because of the drug issue.  The candidates are not offering wholly incompatible positions on the drug war and security — all of them seem to believe that it’s time to pivot from the Calderón strategy, to some degree.  It’s hard to imagine the PRD’s candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for example, deploying the army for another six years at the behest of U.S. law enforcement.  But none of the candidates has been incredibly forthcoming, and it’s unlikely that any of them has a ‘silver bullet’ plan to reduce violence.

Throughout the race, the front-running Peña Nieto has emphasized that he would not abandon Calderón’s effort, but he would redirect the mission from one that targets cartel heads to the goal of simply reducing murders and kidnappings — in essence, keeping drug violence within the illicit world of the drug trade.  He’s also indicated that he might reduce the military’s role in fighting drug violence in favor of more police action.

As Finnegan’s article makes clear, however, it is generally expected that the PRI will reach some sort of accommodation, through intimidation or through bribery or through corruption, much as it did through the 1980s and the 1990s, to keep drug violence from escalating out of control:

“If the PRI wins, everything’s going to change,” he said. “Everybody will start getting paid again. They know how to do it.” He pantomimed a paymaster, counting out cash to a circle of people. “The media, too,” he said, mock paying me.

It was true: the PRI, when in power, paid some journalists extravagantly, and supported many newspapers and other media in return for coverage that suited its purposes.

“There will be just one big group,” Rodríguez said. “Maybe it will be El Chapo [Guzmán]. But there will be peace.”

That, of course, is the ‘known unknown’ of the race — whether Peña Nieto is willing to turn back the clock on the Mexican drug war to a time when the Mexican government coexisted in a very uneasy peace with organized crime.  But there’s an equally big question, though, of whether the PRI or any Mexican government could have the ability to negotiate peace, uneasy or otherwise, with drug cartels that, by all measures, have only grown in power and wealth in the past decade.

Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Zócalo, Mexico City, January 2008.

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