Politics & Policy

Mexico’s Camelot

Will Mexico’s new president be able to solve the country’s daunting problems?

Watchers of goings-on in Mexico have long worried that the drug cartels might grow powerful enough to start buying themselves whole political parties and elections. But Sunday’s presidential election, which brought the country’s traditional political oligarchy back to power, shows that the cartels face a major contender for influence over national politics: television networks.

The telegenic young Enrique Peña Nieto easily won the election, bringing his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) back to power for the first time in twelve years. Previously, the PRI had ruled Mexico for 71 years, establishing an upper-class oligarchy in a country that until recently was composed of a very few rich people and a huge number of desperately poor ones.

One of the campaign’s dominant issues was Mr. Peña’s close relationship with Televisa, the nation’s leading television network, which has a dominant market share. When he was governor of the state surrounding Mexico City, he cultivated a close relationship with the network. An arrangement whereby the state provided Televisa with tens of millions of dollars in exchange for advertising and positive news coverage has become a topic of heated debate. It has further emerged that the producers at Televisa decided to raise Mr. Peña’s profile through a marketing strategy that has been hugely successful for the network’s soap operas: the ubiquitous telenovelas.

Vaguely evocative of a young Cary Grant, and always impeccably coiffed and polished, the dashing Mr. Peña seems less a political leader than a sex symbol: According to one poll reported in the Wall Street Journal, 88 percent of married Mexican women said they would cheat on their husbands with him.

People often say that he looks like a movie star. But he is a movie star. His image has been shaped by the country’s most successful and sophisticated media producers — and they have given him a lot of airtime. The popular mantra in Mexico is that nobody believes anything politicians say, and that was a drag on Peña’s candidacy. But the marketing strategy worked, and a lot of Mexicans like him.

Mr. Peña came in a comfortable five points ahead of his closest rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Mexicans should be thankful for that. The last time Mr. López ran for the presidency, in 2006, he nearly won, and initially disputed the result. Calling forth a huge mob of supporters into the streets, he continued to claim the presidency for months. Since he is a friend of Hugo Chávez, that was more than a little reason to be worried. Addressing supporters Sunday night after preliminary results were announced, Mr. López was true to form: He charged that the results were constitutionally invalid given the unfair advantage in money and broadcast time enjoyed by the winner, and promised to await the official results; supporters chanted “President!” as he left the stage.

But the quiet fate of the third-place finisher speaks more loudly about what is really happening in Mexico. Josefina Vázquez Mota, of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN), came in at a desultory 25 percent; in the Congress, her party lost about a quarter of its seats in both chambers. The vertiginous fall of the party that had enjoyed ten years in power — with all the perks that entails — took many Mexicans by surprise. Even skeptical Mexicans are now wondering whether their democracy mightn’t be doing a little better than before. Perhaps political power isn’t all that it used to be when the PRI was in charge.

The PRI has not been able to escape completely from the image it created in the course of ruling Mexico for more than 70 years. The question on many people’s minds is whether today’s PRI is a new party, or merely the old guard in a new guise. A lot is riding on the question: In the words of one editorialist, “Has it returned, the old corrupt, authoritarian, undemocratic party, enamored of opacity and backroom deals; or will we see a modern, effective party capable of pushing forward the great reforms the country needs?”

Gustavo Madero, leader of the outgoing PAN, said, “We don’t know how it’s going to govern, this PRI that has many faces. It’s a Medusa, it’s a network of interests.” The mystery surrounding the PRI reaches to the new president himself: Though he is great at sharing his romantic side on Mexico’s television variety shows, not much is known about his actual philosophy.

Mr. Peña has tried to put these questions to rest. In his victory speech, he promised a government with a view to the future, and no return to the past. Distancing himself from the PRI’s legacy of decrepit state-owned industries, corrupt administration, and protectionist economic policies, Mr. Peña has repeatedly said he would open up the oil industry to private (and foreign) investment, reform the judiciary, and liberalize the country’s strict labor laws.

He will run into a lot of special interests, but the very fact that he is making unabashedly free-market proposals, and that he ran as a centrist candidate, is a clear indication of how far Mexico has come in embracing market principles. In the last two decades Mexico has gone from a stiff web of tariff barriers to nearly none, and is now one of the top countries in the world in terms of free trade. Per capita income is the third-highest in Latin America, after Argentina and Puerto Rico, and labor productivity remains well above China’s. Economic growth has been sluggish in recent years, but unemployment remains low, and net illegal immigration to the U.S. has slowed to a trickle.

To the outside world, these gains are obscured by the horrifying violence of the drug cartels. But within Mexico, the picture is a bit more nuanced. The violence has taken 55,000 lives in six years, but it is highly concentrated along supply routes and at bottlenecks such as border towns where the cartels compete for access. Neither are the victims evenly distributed: Most are themselves members of cartels, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most Mexicans support President Felipe Calderón’s government in its policy of a fight to the end with the cartels, even if they know that the fight has led to a rise in violence. Mr. Peña has vowed to continue Calderón’s fight, but the PRI has a history of cozy relations with the cartels. Still, Mexicans see little alternative to the government’s policy. All of this helps explain why the drug cartels were not a major issue in this election, which focused instead on a more typical blend of economic policy and character assassination.

In May 2009 I traveled to Mexico for an NR feature on the drug cartels. I visited with local and federal officials in the north, middle, and south of the country, and with U.S. embassy officials in Mexico City, including an agent of the combined anti-cartel task force. I was left with one major question: Why is the violence and lawlessness of places like Ciudad Juárez not spilling over into American cities like El Paso, right across the river?

The U.S.-Mexico border is among the most porous in the world: drugs, guns, cash, and people flow back and forth unimpeded — why not also violence? You might think that American law enforcement is more effective, but it isn’t, at least not when it comes to drugs on the street. Anyone in America who wants to buy illegal drugs can get them easily, usually at a reliably good price. And yet the problems that the drug trade has caused in Mexico — the shocking violence, the corruption at the highest levels of government, even the collapse of whole police forces — are nowhere to be seen in the United States. Why is that?

The consensus answer among U.S. officials — that the cartels are afraid of getting into a fight to the finish with the U.S. government — strikes me as both plausible and entirely speculative. The fact is that nobody knows why Mexico’s horrific cartel problem has not spilled over the border.

One may concede that legalizing drugs in the U.S. would instantly solve the cartel problem in Mexico. However, the cartel problem in Mexico is not a byproduct of American drug policy; otherwise we’d have the same cartel problem here. It is not even a byproduct of Mexican drug policy, because in both the U.S. and Mexico drug policy has been an utter failure, and we still don’t have a cartel problem here.

In that sense, Mexico’s cartel problem has nothing to do with the drug war at all. Even in the teeth of a drug war, the drug trade itself can function nearly perfectly without all the violence, corruption, and institutional collapse that you see in Mexico. From sea to shining sea, the United States is a fantastic bazaar of illegal drugs; but we don’t have to worry about whole police forces collapsing.

The proper way to look at Mexico’s cartel problem is not through the lens of the drug war, but through that of the war on terror. After 9/11 the U.S. national-security establishment (especially the Pentagon) quickly concluded that the first line of defense against terrorism is the governance capacity of those countries where terrorists are present and can operate freely. Because global terrorist networks are transnational, the effort to counter them must also be transnational. “Partnership capacity building” became a ubiquitous mantra within the national-security establishment.

Mexico has a major problem with governance capacity. Entire police forces have collapsed. Many state and local governments cooperate with or are controlled outright by cartels. The cartels even infiltrated the president’s personal bodyguard, through a combination of threats to family members and a $200,000 monthly retainer. With this devastating combination of bribery and threats, the cartels have gotten to scores of mayors, governors, party officials, police chiefs, municipal water authorities, you name it.

Mexico’s inevitable victory in the war against the cartels is likely to have important things in common with the war on terror. First, as the Pentagon’s counter-terrorism policy held, you have to deprive them of the things they need to operate and survive. In order to operate, the terrorists needed a series of practical things — the means to communicate, move money around, train, plan, recruit, and arm themselves. But in order to survive in the long run, they need popular support. Once you turn the population against them, their prospects become dim indeed.

Mexicans are now against the cartels. The problem is that they’re not much more sympathetic to the government. Mexicans expect to be lied to, and are resigned to having a government that is corrupt, venal, and oligarchical.

That is both the promise and the challenge of Mexico’s election. The morning after the election, the country’s leading newspaper, El Universal, ran an editorial entitled “Winner: The Citizen.” As the title suggests, the paper lauded both the manner in which the election was carried out and the high voter turnout, which it noted marked “the reactivation of a participatory citizenry.” The editorial noted that these were the most watched elections in Mexican history, pointing to the role of social networks. “In sum, almost nothing is beyond public scrutiny any longer. Congratulations; that’s the only way we’ll accede to better levels of transparency and accountability.”

The elections in Mexico have given the citizens of that country reasons for believing a bit more firmly in their democratic order — in their institutions of governance. There are also reasons to hope that the administration of Mr. Peña will further reinforce that faith.

Alas, Mexico has a whole other cartel problem to contend with — one that afflicts the United States just as badly. That problem lies in interest groups that form government cartels and seize the federal machinery to benefit themselves in the name of “justice.” Under the PRI’s many decades in power, the reign of interest groups became a tyranny. Now powerful forces will pull Mexico back in that direction again. Let’s hope the star Mr. Peña is strong enough to resist them, because a lot is riding on his success — on both sides of the border.

—Mario Loyola was foreign-policy counsel to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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