Public security is perennially one of the most pressing topics in Mexico, and there’s no more obvious a moment to address such issues than a presidential election. Yet President Felipe Calderon’s crime strategy has played a subdued role in Mexico’s electoral process thus far.

With some six months left to the election, the commentary on security matters has been fleeting, with candidates dedicating most of their time to other issues, whether the economy or their competitors’ foibles.

The Candidates

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the embittered runner-up from the 2006 contest who is carrying the banner for a coalition of leftist parties, promised to pull the army off the streets within six months of being inaugurated several weeks ago, but has since put security proposals on the back-burner. His recent rhetoric has focused far more on economic issues and social justice, and of the 20 press releases issued by his campaign last month, just one dealt with organized crime. Despite spending the past five years criticizing Calderon, Lopez Obrador has been strikingly unwilling to build his campaign around insecurity, which is perceived by many as one of Calderon most significant failings.

The story is broadly similar among the probables from other parties. Three candidates are in pursuit of the nomination in Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN). Santiago Creel, the PAN candidate with the most distance from the president, has made proposals similar to López Obrador’s, and has ironically served as arguably the most persistent critic of Calderón’s policies of all the aspirants in any of the parties. In a July interview, he sketched out a scheme for a “Mexican DEA” -- which in fact did not resemble its American inspiration -- and a renewed focus on money laundering that, while not without its shortcomings, showed a greater degree of consideration of the issue than anyone else has demonstrated.

Unfortunately, Creel is currently polling at less than 20 percent in the three-way race for the PAN nomination. His disappearance from the race seems almost certain following the February primary, but none of his competitors seem capable or interested in picking up the baton as the critic of Calderon's approach to organized crime.

Creel’s two opponents inside the PAN, Ernesto Cordero and runaway favorite Josefina Vazquez Mota, come from Calderon’s cabinet and are linked to the policies of the status quo whether they like it or not. This does not prevent them from promising subtle changes of direction, but there is no indication that they are considering any. Vazquez Mota, whose lead is often measured at more than 40 points, recently called Calderón “brave” and hailed his efforts to “return security to our families”. She has also repeatedly emphasized that there can be no truce with the gangs, a rhetorical device regularly employed by Calderon. All indications are that a Vazquez Mota candidacy will be unlikely to encourage anything more than a superficial debate on how government policy can better address insecurity.

At this point, by far the strongest general election candidate is former Mexico State Governor Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Party of the Institutional Revolution. (Most polls give him a lead of 20 points or more.) Because of his party’s past -- PRI governments in the 1980s and 1990s are often accused of protecting drug traffickers -- some analysts worry that a Peña Nieto presidency would mean a return to narco-pacts. According to some views, Calderon's decision to stir up the gangs with his aggressive approach is the primary driver of the current violence, and a pact could remove some of the pressure on the drug gangs and help foster a more stable drug trade.

However, Peña Nieto has repeatedly denied that he would consider such an agreement. Additionally, there are structural differences in today’s current political scene that would make a narco-pact unfeasible, even if the ex-governor were interested in negotiating one. In any event, Peña Nieto’s proposed crime strategy, released with much fanfare in early 2010, is, on the big questions, largely indistinguishable from Calderon’s.

Otherwise, Peña Nieto has also had relatively little to say about crime in Mexico. He was to spend this fall deepening and refining his positions on a number of issues, public security presumably among them, but instead, his campaign has been overwhelmed by a series of petty controversies, from his ignorance of the price of tortillas to his daughter’s offensive Tweets. Peña Nieto has not abandoned crime entirely -- most recently, he bickered with Calderon’s government over the scope of anti-corruption electoral regulations -- but it has not occupied a major role in his campaign thus far.

What It Means

Peña Nieto’s approach serves as a microcosm for insecurity’s role in the campaign in general: rather than taking center stage, public security has drifted into the background. As the campaign continues, this may change -- it’s hard to imagine the presidential debates passing without more substantive discussion of organized crime -- but there’s little question that the candidates’ reticence reflects a disinclination to engage the issue. As a result, there is a misalignment between the significance of the issue and the amount of attention it has received.

What this tells us is that for all of the dissatisfaction with the current state of security, there are no alternatives that slip easily into a campaign sound bite. While it’s easy to lament the spike in violent deaths under Calderon, it’s comparatively difficult to envision a reliable, short-term path out of the current morass. And any candidate who capitalizes on the security woes in order to win himself (or herself) the presidency would soon face the unenviable task of having to live up to his promises.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.