Could Crime Record Derail Mexican Presidential Front-Runner?

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With the election of Mexico’s next president less than four months away, his party’s record on organized crime could be a problem for the popular PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.

In the race to replace Felipe Calderon, the runaway leader thus far is Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who according to most polls enjoys a double-digit lead over Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN). While Peña Nieto’s telegenic appearance and sophisticated public relations operation have helped make him a formidable contender, his party’s relationship with organized crime could become an albatross around his neck.

When it was finally voted from office in 2000, the PRI had governed Mexico for more than 70 years, a period that coincided with the formation of notorious smuggling networks like the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, and various others. This was not just a case of insufficiently robust policy or negligent law enforcement, but of deep-rooted political corruption. During the 1980s and 1990s, elected officials and appointees of PRI governments, from Federal Police heavyweight Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni to drug czar Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, built up a record of active collusion with Mexican gangs.

Despite the PRI being out of power for the last 12 years, evidence of their links to the drug trade have continued to emerge. As noted by the LA Times and InSight Crime, one example is an ongoing investigation, launched in January, into three successive PRI governors in the turbulent border state of Tamaulipas. The federal government also sought to charge Jorge Hank Rhon — the wealthy former mayor of Tijuana, son of one of the PRI’s most important figures of the 20th century, and a man long linked to drug trafficking — on weapons charges. The case fell apart, however, due to allegations that the arresting troops manipulated evidence.

This history of drug ties has long been a major plank of the PAN’s attacks on the PRI, and the current campaign is not likely to be any different. When responding to criticisms of the spike in violence, the PAN’s Calderon has frequently blamed the PRI’s years of corruption for making an aggressive strategy necessary today, pinning responsibility for the violence on his political adversaries. The PRI’s opponents also whisper about the possibility of a President Peña Nieto negotiating a pact with drug gangs that would trade impunity for less bloodshed, thus erasing whatever progress has been made to weaken the business.

Yet it is not clear that Vazquez Mota will be able to benefit from the PRI’s dubious history. Many voters see the investigations of PRI officials as politically motivated, with the election just around the corner. Furthermore, while the public cares deeply about the issue and wide majorities support a robust anti-crime policy, Calderon’s approach has become synonymous with surging levels of crime, and many polls suggest a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to keep the country under control.

The nation is far more concerned by the current violence than by 20- and 30-year-old links between PRI governments and criminal networks, and so the incumbent party seems to have more to lose when the issue is discussed. Many of those voting on July 1 will have no memory of, for instance, allegations that 1980s-era Defense Secretary Juan Arevalo Gardoqui trafficked cocaine, but everyone knows that violence has grown worse under Calderon.

It is telling that the third major candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who represents a coalition of leftist parties, has earned more headlines for criticizing Calderon on security than for reminding voters of the PRI’s past corruption, despite the PRI candidate running in first place.

Furthermore, Peña Nieto has sought to distance himself from his party’s past in a number of ways. He has repeatedly rejected any talk of a pact with organized crime, and has made a series of appearances in the US in which he essentially promised a continuation of Calderon’s direct combat of organized crime. Peña Nieto’s outline of his criminal strategy, published in the Financial Times more than a year ago, resembles Calderon’s in many respects.

While it’s easy to chalk up Peña Nieto’s reassurances to political expediency, there are a number of other reasons why building a government-wide narco-pact would be unfeasible, even if he were interested in doing so. One is that the press is far more combative than it was a generation ago, and explicit government agreements with the gangs are much more likely to result in embarrassing scandals than they were during the PRI’s heyday. The smuggling industry has also grown far more fractured, to the point that maintaining an industry-wide pact to avoid violence would be extremely difficult.

It is also unclear what impact a PRI government intent on working with the gangs rather than combating them would have on the violence in Mexico. It could be that recent improvements in public security are set to increase dramatically and spread across the nation, for reasons largely independent of government policy. It’s also possible that the recent good news is merely a blip and that a further descent is inevitable, regardless of the next president’s stance.

Despite the correlation between Calderon’s aggressive stance and the recent wave of violence, the link between presidential policies and criminal violence is far from clear-cut. Voters and policymakers are left with little reliable sense of how to achieve their desired objective: a safer Mexico.

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