Fernando Menendez: Is Mexico's Pena Nieto a Cartel Pinata?

One July 1st, Mexico goes to the polls to elect a new president. The likely winner is a 45-year-old telegenic former governor of Mexico state representing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) named Enrique Peña Nieto.

After 12 years of government by the conservative National Action Party (PAN), Mexicans seem ready for a change at the helm. The country is exhausted from an epidemic of crime and violence leading to the loss of an estimated 60,000 lives in six years of effort to stop the drug cartels. In 2006, the administration of President Félipe Calderón deployed the armed force to go after the cartels and their bosses.  Most of the deaths have come from inter-cartel bloodshed, but a significant number of innocent civilians have been caught in the melee. Evidently the cost of this strategy seems too high a price to pay. The specter of Mexico becoming a failed state has been raised repeatedly.

On the one hand, this election should be applauded as a sign of Mexico’s maturing into a multi-party democracy. Today, Mexico has openly contested elections. Josefina Vázquez Mota of the PAN is the first women candidate of a major party, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) has shown a rise in the polls. For many, when Vicente Fox of the PAN unseated the 71-year monopoly of the PRI in 2000, an era of authoritarianism and corporate clientism came to an end. By all indications this election is the PRI’s chance to return.

Peña Nieto

Nevertheless, the democratic return of the PRI under Peña Nieto raises some serious concerns for those who follow events in Mexico.

First, Peña Nieto’s performance has raised some questions about his capacity and lack of gravitas to serve as president - especially at this dangerous time.  At a book fair, when asked what books had most influenced his life, Peña Nieto came up blank. Most recently, he managed to offend women by responding to a question about food prices, saying he didn’t know the price of tortillas because he wasn’t “la señora de casa” (the housewife).  At a conference at Universidad Iberoamericana, Peña Nieto was heckled and cornered into a restroom by student protestors. Later, his handlers accused the students of being in the pay of the left, prompting a YouTube response from 131 students. The event sparked a grassroots movement, Yo soy 132 (I am number 132), adding thousands of voices repudiating the candidate and his media supporters. Finally, the late author Carlos Fuentes opined that Peña Nieto’s “ignorance” disqualified him to be Mexico’s president.

More than the gaffes and perceptions, those who know the history of the PRI worry that the combination of what some have termed “the lightweight” with the mechanism of a historically corrupt and repressive party may represent a slide backwards.

The Return of the PRI and the Drug War

For 71 years, the PRI ruled Mexico through a system of accommodations with large corporate forces such as monopoly businesses, labor unions, and other special interests.  These entities kept the PRI in power and the party used its power to dole out concessions and privileges. The PRI also used authoritarian measures to punish its adversaries and silence opposition. Given this history, many observers worry about the PRI’ s strategy for ending the drug war.

Despite his refusal to give any specifics, Peña Nieto has provided a rather more serious impression that he plans to achieve a ceasefire with the cartels and restore stability through an accommodation. Peña Nieto has staked out the position that while they will continue to fight crime and violence, arresting the cartel bosses will no longer be his administration’s focus.

Indeed, in large measure, public opinion seems to believe that with the PRI in power, its alleged corruption will allow it to operate with the drug traffickers. Drug trafficking is not new to Mexico, and in the past narco-trafficking took place while corrupt government officials and cops took a cut of the action.  This approach, described as “crime management” by a local analyst, has a certain appeal after six years of bloodshed.

Furthermore, many in Mexico also object to the U.S. government’s support for Calderón’s frontal attack on the cartels.  A growing trend among opinion-shapers rejects the approach of going after suppliers, when the real problem, in their opinion, is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has termed “an insatiable demand” for drugs coming from North America and Europe. Fighting North America’s “drug problem” on Mexican streets raises public ire and resentment.  Several Latin American leaders, among them former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, have initiated a dialogue to consider the effects of decriminalization and legalization of certain drugs.

After July 1, the real problem facing Mexico will be less a matter of becoming a failed state, especially if Peña Nieto and the PRI make a deal with the cartels, and more a matter of a new model of narco-state, that is, an authoritarian regime paid to look the other way while cartels operate with impunity.

Fernando Menéndez is an economist and principal of Cordoba Group International LLC, a strategic consulting firm.

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