Pubdate: Sun, 01 Jul 2012
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2012 Winnipeg Free Press
Author: Gwynne Dyer


Murder and mayhem as result of drug wars spur nostalgia for

There's no point in talking about who's going to win the Mexican
presidential election on July 1. Enrique Pena Nieto is going to win
it. What's more interesting is why he's going to win it.

Pena Nieto, the candidate of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary
Party, is a charming and extremely good-looking non-entity. He speaks
no foreign language, has travelled little abroad, and is so ignorant
that, when asked on live television what three books had influenced
him most, he struggled to name any books at all. Finally, he came up
with two: the Bible, and a Jeffrey Archer potboiler.

He has spent his entire life in politics, and his timing was good. In
1990, he began working in various local branches of the PRI, the
ruling single party that dominated every aspect of Mexican life, and
if democracy had not come to Mexico it would probably have taken him a
long time to rise to the top. However, 12 years ago, when he was only
34, the PRI lost power after 70 years in office.

The dinosaurs who ran the party machine realized that they needed a
new approach in the newly democratic environment, and fresh young
faces like Pena Nieto's were just what they needed out front. In PRI's
long march back to acceptability he was one of the standard-bearers,
winning the governorship of the State of Mexico (the region
surrounding the capital) in 2005.

The standard he bore did not have any stirring political slogan on it,
however. Pena Nieto's entire political pitch, then and subsequently,
consisted of promising "projects" -- a new road here, a hospital there
- -- to every identifiable group in the electorate. That was all any PRI
candidate could do, really, because the party had no serious
ideological pretensions.

Sandwiched between explicitly ideological rivals to the right and
left, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the socialist
Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), all the old-fashioned PRI
had to offer was patronage and the pork barrel: poverty politics. That
should have condemned it to a long exile from power, because Mexico
has been doing very well economically under the PAN governments that
have run the country since 2000.

Mexico is the rising star among Latin American economies, with an
annual growth rate that now exceeds that of Brazil. And in an economy
with low inflation and manageable debt, real incomes have risen as

Per capita income in Mexico is now as much as 50 per cent higher than
Brazil's. So if Brazilian voters were so happy with the results of
President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva's eight years in power that they
gratefully elected his chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, to the
presidency in 2010, why have PAN's 12 years of economic success not
entitled it to re-election too?

The answer is simple: President Felipe Calderon's declaration of war
on Mexico's drug cartels in 2006 has embroiled the country in a
bloodbath that blinds both foreigners and its own citizens to the
remarkable progress that is being made on most other fronts. At least
50,000 killed in the drug war over the past five years have persuaded
Mexican citizens that the country is in an acute crisis.

In fact, Mexico has a lower murder rate than Brazil or Colombia, and
less than a third of Venezuela's. The spectacular (and deliberate)
savagery of the killings by the Mexican drug cartels, however, has
persuaded many Mexicans that they face an acute threat to their
personal security, and they are not the least bit grateful to Felipe
Calderon for unleashing this horror on the country.

Back in the bad old days when the PRI ran everything, the cartels
waged their internal wars discreetly, and they never attacked the
forces of the state. There was an unwritten understanding that the
government would not hinder their activities so long as they kept a
low profile, except for an occasional big drug bust to keep the
Americans happy.

In return, the cartels paid off PRI officials at every level and
helped to perpetuate the party's hold on power. It was a grubby
arrangement, but not many people got killed and the public slept
easily. Then came PAN, Calderon, and the war. A significant section of
the public, rightly or wrongly, now believes that the PRI can make the
deals that are needed to restore the peace.

It's probably a bit more complicated than that, in reality. Pena Nieto
says nothing about it in public, but he has hired Oscar Naranjo, the
Colombian police chief who played a major role in "decommissioning"
that country's cocaine syndicates, as his main security adviser. The
impression that conveys to the voters (quite intentionally) is that as
president he will make peace with the cartels, not wage a hopeless war
against them.

Did Pena Nieto think this up by himself? Probably not. Are the
"dinosaurs" who still control the PRI behind the scenes capable of
coming up with it? Of course they are; they once did business with the
ancestors of the current drug lords.

And would this be such a terrible thing for Mexico? Well, so long as
the United States will not permit the legalization and nationalization
of the drug trade, it's probably Mexico's best remaining alternative.
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