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Security Issues Largely Absent from Mexico Campaign

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.

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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.

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