PRI Begins its Ascent to Power as a Perplexed U.S. Looks for Formula to Bring Down Mexican Drug Syndicates

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated Mexico’s politics with one-party rule for most of the 20th century, corrupting the country’s law enforcement and judiciary institutions. Today, President Felipe Calderón of the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN) is struggling to use the weakened institutions to combat Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs). The human cost of fighting these DTOs has caused many Mexicans to lose all faith in the PAN and prompted a wave of support for the PRI. In an effort to slow the PRI’s momentum before the 2012 presidential elections, the PAN formed an alliance with a leftist party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PAN-PRD alliance won three gubernatorial races in the 2010 elections, but the PAN and PRD are not sure if they will be able to govern together. The PRI’s leading presidential candidate is Mexico State Governor Enrique Peña Nieto. If Peña Nieto is able to bring the PRI back to power, he will offer a strategy to eliminate DTOs that differs from that of Calderón. The importance of assisting Mexico in the fight against its drug syndicates means that U.S. policymakers must be prepared for a PRI president in 2012.

Elections Recap

COHA Research Associate, Katherine Haas, reported that many political experts predicted a clean sweep for the PRI in Mexico’s July 4, 2010 elections, which would pave the way for a PRI victory in the 2012 presidential elections. However, the election results demonstrated that a wave of anti-incumbency is sweeping the nation. No matter if it was PRI, PAN, or the leftist PRD, any state with a notoriously corrupt governor saw a change of the ruling party’s emblem. The PRI lost three states—Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa—to a candidate from the PAN-PRD alliance. Haas discusses the surprising nature of the alliance, given its opposing ideological views and the PAN’s contested victory in the 2006 presidential elections over PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Mexico’s July 4, 2010 elections could be considered a referendum on President Felipe Calderón’s policy on combating the DTOs. Although Calderón’s conservative PAN unexpectedly captured three governorships, the other nine went to the PRI. The PRI governed under one-party rule for seventy-one years, until 2000, when PAN candidate Vicente Fox won the presidency. In 2006, when Calderón took office, the PRI experienced an all-time low, receiving only 22.7% of the vote in the presidential race and losing almost half of its seats in both houses of the Mexican Congress.

The PRI’s fortune began to improve in 2009 after the global recession hit and voters began to lose faith in the Calderón administration. In that election, the PRI was able to win control of both houses of Congress. Furthermore, Calderón’s revamped strategy of using the military to fight the drug syndicates had resulted in 28,000 deaths since the offensive began in December 2006. As the body count continues to rise, the Mexican electorate seems to be returning to the PRI in increasing numbers.

Despite the big wins for the PAN-PRD alliance in states where the PRI had ruled for decades, priístas feel the alliance failed, considering the PRI’s nine victories, including three states formerly controlled by PAN and PRD governors. “Without the local alliances between the PAN and the PRD, which the PRI has christened ‘unholy,’ the victories would have been unthinkable,” columnist Denise Maerker wrote in Mexico’s El Universal newspaper. For the presidential election in 2012, there will be no such coalition, as both PAN and PRD recognize their inherent political differences make it impossible to field one candidate against the PRI. Ultimately, the results of the 2010 elections gave no clear indication of which party we should expect to be in power two years from now.

Can the PAN-PRD Alliance Govern?

At the state and local levels, the PAN-PRD alliance can unite anti-PRI forces to win elections; however, they must now prove that they can actually govern together. In fact, the presidents of the PAN and PRD, César Nava and Jesús Ortega respectively, are planning coalitions for 2011 without developing a plan on how to govern the states they won this year. Nava and Ortega agreed to put aside their different political agendas in order to defeat the PRI. There is nothing to suggest that the two ideologically conflicting parties can effectively govern. “It would be like two porcupines making love,” said George Grayson, a professor at The College of William & Mary and author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? in an interview with COHA. But Professor Grayson also said that the parties could agree on several issues including improving health care, jobs creation, and regional development initiatives. However, before the alliance can expect the populace’s vote in future elections, their newly-elected governors must prove themselves to be honest, capable of improving the economy, and effective in confronting organized crime.

The PRI’s Ticket to Los Piños: The “Golden Boy”

Mexico State Governor Enrique Peña Nieto says he and his party are not afraid of the alliance in next year’s gubernatorial election. Peña Nieto, with his team of able advisers, an engagement to a soap-opera star, and wide media exposure, is shaping up to be the PRI’s “chosen one,” the man who can get the party back into Los Piños (Mexico’s White House). “The main thing he has going for him is his inevitability,” says Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former Foreign Minister, “if he is knocked down, the PRI has no substitute, because they’ve bet the store on him.”

The Reforma newspaper’s poll of 1,515 Mexican voters in May 2010 showed Peña Nieto with a substantial lead over potential presidential candidates among various parties. The poll showed 40% of respondents would vote for Peña Nieto in 2012; his closest rivals are the PAN’s Santiago Creel with 14% and the 2006 presidential runner-up, Obrador, also with 14%. A nationwide Mitofksy1 survey found that when asked who they would like to see as the next President, 24% of those surveyed preferred Peña Nieto. The next closest person was Obrador with 7.1% of the vote. Both polls indicate that Peña Nieto has a substantial lead heading into the 2012 race giving him an advantage in winning the presidency.

Peña Nieto,is one of the most recognizable names in Mexican politics. Even within his own party, Nieto is the clear favorite. A 2009 BGC/Excelsior2 nationwide telephone poll on name recognition and popularity of leading PRI politicians showed that the Mexico State Governor continues to stand well above his fellow priístas in both categories. Peña Nieto had 89% name recognition among those polled and 74% said their opinion of him was “good to very good” compared to the 6% who said it was “bad to very bad.” Peña Nieto’s closest PRI competitor is Party President Beatriz Paredes; the polls showed her to have 80% name recognition and 61% said “good to very good.” In a recent article about the July 4th elections, George Grayson said, “[The PRI leaders] concentrated on recruiting winning candidates, raising campaign war chests, and downplaying intra-party and personal conflicts in favor of lofting the party’s star.” Peña Nieto appears to have party support and all polls show him as the PRI’s golden ticket back to power.

PRI’s Past Policy on DTOs

Before the PRI’s removal from power, it reduced violence from criminal organizations through “backroom deals.” The Mexican electorate is desperate for someone to bring down the level of violence raging through areas of the country that DTOs use to transport illicit drugs to the United States. One member of the ruling PAN party, Mayor of San Pedro Garza, Mauricio Fernández, made it clear that he had bolstered the security of his municipality through negotiations with the Beltrán Leyva drug gang. In his first six months in office, Mayor Fernández placed a full advertisement in the newspapers to boast his achievement of “zero shootouts, zero murders, zero kidnappings, zero extortions, elimination of drug sales in schools, elimination of drug sales in discos and night clubs.” These are the type of results the people are clamoring for and the PRI once delivered.

The PRI had agreements to turn a blind eye towards the drug syndicates’ illegal activities in exchange for the criminal organizations cooperation in limiting violence. It was seven decades of PRI rule that weakened Mexico’s law enforcement and judicial institutions. By the time that the PRI lost its monopoly on power, the corrupt institutions it had built were unable to handle the daunting task of battling today’s drug syndicates, thus affording them impunity and hindering the establishment of the rule of law in the country. Ending impunity for criminal organizations is necessary if Mexico is to overcome organized crime in the long term.

Mexico’s Policy In 2012

If the PRI returns to the presidency in 2012, then Mexico will pursue a different policy on reducing the influence of organized crime. In contrast to Calderón’s militaristic approach, the PRI’s first act of business will be to significantly reduce the number of drug-related deaths by scaling back the military’s role in fighting DTOs. In addition, some soldiers have been accused of violating human rights of the civilian population. Reducing the visibility of the military and the negative effects it can have on Mexico’s communities would also increase the PRI’s popularity.

Calderón has tried to prevent any non-PAN successor from drastically altering his aggressive approach towards the drug syndicates by making several bilateral security agreements with the United States, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and other Western Hemisphere states. In an address to the National Public Security Council (CNSP), Calderón commented on Mexico’s past approach on the drug war of cutting deals with criminal organizations to prevent violence, saying: “No pact with organized crime is viable, ethically or legally…Any attempt to reach an understanding leads to the weakening of [our] institutions.” Andrew Selee, Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, believes the July 4th elections gave Calderón “some breathing room.” Dr. Selee believes that while Calderón neither gained nor lost political clout from the elections, the PRI’s failure to sweep the gubernatorial elections allowed Calderón to avoid the label of “lame-duck president.” If Calderón can craft “NAFTA-esque” regional security agreements then he will preempt the PRI’s opportunity to assuage drug war violence.

Reviewing Peña Nieto’s record as the Governor of Mexico State may indicate what he would do as president of Mexico. In 2008, Peña Nieto introduced eleven measures to combat corruption in his state. In addition to doubling anti-kidnapping forces, most of the measures created programs aimed at ending impunity and corruption. He also instituted judiciary reforms, such as the creation of a Special Prosecutor whose job is to prosecute members of law enforcement agencies suspected of corruption. One initiative created the Council of Citizen Participation to enhance the other programs with civilian participation.

If Peña Nieto is elected as Mexico’s next president, then the United States must prepare for his policy towards DTOs. It is reasonable to expect Peña Nieto to bring his Mexico State reforms to the entire country. Additionally, Mexico’s Ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhán, said, “Regardless of specific strategy, Mexican politicians understand that the strategy of turning a blind eye was, and is, a dangerous recipe.” Do not expect Peña Nieto to return to the PRI’s Faustian bargaining of the 90s. As president, Nieto can be expected to be tough on DTOs, with a focus on cracking down on police corruption and judicial reform rather than overall reduction of violence. Ambassador Sarukhán also said that Mexicans understand that drug violence will not evaporate overnight. It will take years to root out criminal organizations, and the United States must assist Mexico through this violent period.

Recommendation for U.S. Policy 3

No matter who wins the Mexican elections in 2012, the United States will need to continue to assist the country in combating organized crime. The U.S. released a 2008 Department of Justice National Drug Threat Assessment Report that states: “Mexican drug trafficking organizations represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.” The United States pledged $1.3 billion to Mexico and Central America through the Mérida Initiative; most of the money spent so far has gone to military equipment and training.

However, there ultimately needs to be less spending on military hardware and more on strengthening law enforcement and judicial institutions. Future initiatives need to go beyond the Mérida Initiative and appropriate more funds to the Mexican state and local governments in addition to the federal government. While Mérida’s onset signaled an unprecedented level of cooperation between the United States and Mexico on the issues of security, drugs, and crime, the United States must do far more to help Mexico. In 2012, Mexico and the United States will require a new agreement that has benchmarks to track progress and targets judicial reforms.

Part of Mexico’s problem is the U.S. demand for drugs, but the solution to Mexico’s problems lies in Mexico. Short of full legalization of drugs, there is little that the United States can do to eliminate Mexico’s problems. In Latin America, there is a strong wave of support for the legalization of drugs. Last week, Calderón said for the first time that he would welcome a debate on legalization, after years of dismissing the issue. Calderón, along with other Latin American leaders, could put the United States in a domestic political bind if they come out in favor of legalization.

There are steps the United States can take to alleviate its neighbor’s plight. The United States must spend more to help Mexico fight criminal organizations. In 1990, 50% of cocaine heading to the United States came through Mexico, whereas today, that figure has reached 90%. Spending on training for law enforcement should remain high, so that officials are better and equip Mexico City to handle intelligence and organized crime investigations.

On the U.S. side of the border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) need to care about what leaves the country as much as they do about what enters the United States. If ICE and CBP can restrict the flow of weapons into Mexico, this would help to reduce overall drug-related violence in Mexico. Mexico has strict gun control laws, and Ambassador Sarukhán stressed that Mexico cannot challenge the U.S. Second Amendment. Instead, he asked the United States to prevent criminal organizations from doing two things: one, purchasing weapons that are illegal in Mexico; and two, prevent individuals who purchase these weapons from crossing the border. The Obama Administration has increased emphasis on southbound inspections of vehicles for weapons and bulk cash. The United States must also increase sharing of intelligence with its Mexican partners. Bulk cash leaving the United States is essential for DTO operations, especially since Mexico and the United States began crackdowns on money laundering.

U.S. Congress gave its final approval to a $600 million border security package that will pay for the deployment of an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents along the southwest border, hiring 250 new CBP officers, adding 250 ICE personnel to target drug smuggling as well as two unmanned surveillance planes. “These assets are critical to bringing additional capabilities to crack down on transnational criminal organizations and reduce the illicit trafficking of people, drugs, currency, and weapons,” said Acting Deputy Atty. Gen. Gary G. Grindler4. The funding will also boost the U.S. Justice Department’s resources for investigating and prosecuting organized drug gangs. President Obama is expected to sign the bill today, Friday the 13th. The United States must remain a steadfast partner with Mexico, regardless of whichever party comes to power in 2012.

References for this article are available here.

5 thoughts on “PRI Begins its Ascent to Power as a Perplexed U.S. Looks for Formula to Bring Down Mexican Drug Syndicates

  • August 13, 2010 at 6:02 pm
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    Good article. I also think that factors favoring a return of the PRI include national pride. The neoliberal PAN governments have turned Mexico into a wholly owned subsidiary of US transnationals. Mexico used to have an independent foreign policy. Now it is in lockstep with the US. Mexicans don't want PEMEX privatized. The PAN does. I agree that you've analyzed the most important factor in the resurrection of the PRI, but I think even without the drug war violence, Mexican voters would be looking to recover some of their national sovereignty. Since it's obvious that the PAN is not going to be allowed to rule even when they receive a majority of the vote, the only alternative people have is to vote for the PRI.

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  • August 14, 2010 at 5:28 am
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    I don't believe that "the only alternative people have is to vote for the PRI". I believe we've reached a point where a total re-structuring of the official party system needs to take place. Accepting the PRI as a force of nature, a reality that will remain unchanged and unchangeable is highly toxic, disempowering and dispiriting. It's been proven that "change" will not come through more or less democratic processes carried out through the usual means. How this total re-structuring would take place is not easy to tell, but it will certainly imply a long radical process of empowerment of the civil society through more active civic observation and participation in the political processes.

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  • August 14, 2010 at 11:39 am
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    I agree with most of the comments. But we have to remember that the nine-state victory is also somewhat fictitious, as it were. Why? Because in three of the states in play where the victory went to the PRI (Durango, Veracruz, and Hidalgo), there appears to be clear interference by the governors in favour of the PRI and evident corruption in the electoral process (which confirms that idea of a unreformed PRI). In the end, it is true that the PAN is not likely to win the elections (although it was not likely to repeat in 2003 either!), but it is also true that it has sometimes surprised people by the choices it makes (one potential "game changer" would be a woman for President or a not-well-liked-but-necessary coalition with the PRD).

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  • August 14, 2010 at 11:39 am
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    Another issue to consider is that in no poll does the PRI get more than 40% of the electoral preferences and it is more likely to be at 35%. That means that two our of three voters simply disliked the PRI for all that it represents. Finally, it could be that Mexicans will turn to the left to recover some of their autonomy from US policies, potentially ratifying their vote for López Obrador or another leftist candidate, solidifying Latin America's apparent swing to the left. In politics, time is eternal and the only thing that is uncertain is the result.

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  • August 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm
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    very surprised and disappointed to see COHA support more funding for Plan Mexico (Merida Initiative). The program is a pretext for militarization and intervention and should be opposed even if we took at face value their claims that funding would reduce narcotrafficking!

    what's happened to COHA and how can you support such an initiative?

    promoting this is reasonable (if funding is ended too): http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald

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