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Mexico: 50,000 Dead, but Democracy Survives

Mexicans head to the polls to elect a new president on Sunday. The election is widely seen as a referendum on current president Felipe Calderón’s drug policy. 50,000 people have died in drug violence since he took office. His party’s candidate is expected to lose.

The polls say Enrique Peña Nieto will be the next president. Despite his slogan—“Tú me conoces” (“You know me”)—most Mexicans have no idea who he is. His time in the national spotlight has been short. But if the man is a mystery, his party is not. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico for 71 years until Calderón’s predecessor, Vincente Fox, came to office in 2000. “Throwing out the corrupt, authoritarian PRI, in 2000, was a great moment for democracy in Latin America. Now it seems that Mexican voters are poised to bring the Party back,” writes William Finnegan in the New Yorker.

Mexico has a huge problem with the drug cartels that has not eased under Calderón. Calderón brought in the Army to fight the cartels when he took office, a policy that has done nothing to reduce the power and brutality of the cartels or corruption in the government and police. Instead Mexico’s organized crime empire has split into ultraviolent, warring factions that prey on innocents as well as rivals, dumping the bodies of migrants in mass graves, beheading civilians, torturing enemies.

Despite this, Mexican democracy has been looking perky in the lead-up to this weekend’s election. Unhappy with the current leadership, Mexicans are poised to bring in a new administration.

Not that the vote will be by acclamation. Nieto has a two-digit lead in the polls, but he is not universally loved. In March, tens of thousands of students marched through Mexico City to protest the seemingly inevitable return of the PRI to power. But the youth protests, known as #YoSoy132, and other movements have failed to have significant effect. As the Economist puts it, “If the PRI has managed to win its way back into Mexican hearts, that is partly a verdict on its opponents.” Calderón’s vaunted plan to use the Army against the cartels didn’t change much and possibly created more violence, and largely because of this, his party is being chucked out of office. Meanwhile, the Mexican economy is trucking  along at an uninspiring but steady pace of about 3 percent each year, and the middle class is growing.

The international media’s coverage of Mexico tends to focus on drug violence. Much less attention is given to what doesn’t happen, but could: a military coup; the ultraviolent, ex-military Zetas cartel taking over the government by force; a complete devolution of the country into a narco-state. Violence has not engulfed the entire country. And some people point out rather dismally that the cartels have enough power to own politicians and influence policy and media coverage, or that Mexico already is a narco-state — the 21st century equivalent of Nucky Thompson’s Boardwalk Empire.

There’s no doubt that our neighbors to the south have serious problems, some of which can be partially blamed on America’s terrible drug habits. But the support for democracy in Mexico even under difficult and frustrating circumstances is a good sign for the future, That, and the rise of a Mexican middle class, suggest that Mexico is one of the places where life just might get substantially better in the decades to come.


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  • Jim.

    Question: if the cartels militarized, what choice did Calderon have but to militarize his response to them? It’s a pity he didn’t call in the US military to help.

    (To those who believe that legalization of drugs would have been anything other than a total victory for the cartels… you’re delusional.)

  • Art Deco

    Again, Mexico has a homicide rate of 18 per 100,000. That is quite normal for Latin America. (Chile is the only country in Latin America that has homicide rates which would be unremarkable in Europe). Columbia and some of the Central American republics have severely elevated homicide rates (60-80 per 100,000). Mexico, not so much.

    It is also unremarkable that you have alternation in power between political parties. The PRI has always had a large constituency, PAN has never been a majority party, and Sr. Calderon was elected with only a narrow plurality. Small quanta of disaffection, such as are common in political life, would have been sufficient for the PAN to be replaced.

    “Could”? The country has not had any breaches of institutional continuity since 1920 and has had only two military coups since 1855 or thereabouts, the last in 1913. I do not think that is a money-making wager.

    Please recall that Mark Falcoff predicted twelve years ago that the country would descend into anarchy because the inauguration of a PAN government would completely recast an institutional architecture which had theretofore had a certain stability with the President of the Republic as head crime boss. One can make an awful fool of oneself prognosticating.

  • Corlyss

    “To those who believe that legalization of drugs would have been anything other than a total victory for the cartels… you’re delusional.”

    And you know this because . . . ?

  • Corlyss

    Isn’t this the classic democratic dilemma? Tryanny or Chaos? When there’s no government, how can that be a victory?

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    1. Jim (To those who believe that legalization of drugs would have been anything other than a total victory for the cartels… you’re delusional.)

    It is you who is delusional, if the US legalized drugs, these gangs would have no income and would vanish overnight. The money for guns, corruption, and power would quickly dry up, and the politicians, police, and people would turn on the hated gangsters with a terrible vengeance.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Mexico has an immense, insoluble problem bearing down on them rather rapidly: the collapse of its oil industry. Government-owned Pemex has provided about 40% of the federal government’s revenue, much of which has been spent to purchase social peace through assorted modest development projects across the heartland of the country.

    Cantarell, once the third-largest oil field in the world is collapsing. From 2.1 million barrels per day in 2004 its production is now a tenth of that. Federal government revenue is collapsing with Cantarell, and along with then the social peace program.

    It will not be pretty.

  • Luke Lea

    “There’s no doubt that our neighbors to the south have serious problems, some of which can be partially blamed on America’s terrible drug habits.”

    Just like Al Capone could be blamed on America’s terrible drinking habits.

  • cdavis

    Guys, it’s futile to argue with Mead about climate or drugs, because he’s more interested in maintaining his brand than resolving rational debate. If he really wanted to verify these claims, he would not consistently ignore (or avoid reading?) the research to their contrary.

    I, like many of my (and his) colleagues, find these disingenuous and/or ignorant displays puzzling given his otherwise thoughtful and well-researched posts.

    Whatever the motivation, he’ll pay for these short-term stunts with the currency of his legacy.

  • Tom Richards

    I submit that the likely response of the cartels to unbeatable competition in a legalized drug market would be an extension of their response to Calderon’s partially successful crackdown on their transportation activities: diversification into other forms of crime, notably Kidnap for Ransom and Extortion. Mexico is now the KRE capital of the world – far ahead of Colombia.

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