The PRI Returns to Power in Mexico

The PRI Returns to Power in Mexico

What the election of Enrique Peña Nieto means for Mexican politics and the future of the drug war.

It is increasingly clear that Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has scored a decisive victory in elections for the country’s presidency and national legislature. Led by the charismatic forty-five-year-old Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI managed to convince Mexican voters that the party had changed its corrupt, authoritarian ways during its twelve-year exile from the presidency. Not only did Peña Nieto win the presidential race decisively—by nearly eight points over his nearest opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—but the PRI was also poised for a strong showing in the legislature and the capture of state governorships.

The results were a dramatic reversal of political fortunes for the PRI. The party had lost the presidency for the first time in seven decades when the National Action Party’s (PAN) candidate, Vicente Fox, triumphed in 2000. Then the PRI finished a humiliating third in the 2006 elections, not only losing to the Center-Right PAN candidate Felipe Calderón but also badly trailing the PRD’s López Obrador. In the 2012 election, it was PAN’s turn to be humiliated. The party’s presidential candidate, Josefina Vásquez Mota, garnered only a quarter of the votes cast, finishing well out of the running.

Vásquez Mota’s disappointing performance was due less to her deficiencies than to widespread public disillusionment about Calderón’s record in office, especially the fiasco of his militarized war against Mexico’s drug cartels. That conflict has consumed more than fifty thousand lives since December 2006 and has turned portions of Mexico into chaotic combat zones. And despite the military-led offensive, the cartels seem more powerful than ever. At least one motive for the public’s willingness to put the PRI back into power was the hope that the country could return to the more peaceful days seen under that party’s governance.

Peña Nieto successfully portrayed himself as the leader of a “new, improved” PRI—a party now committed to honest and efficient government rather than the corruption and cronyism that had been its trademark for so many decades. He also broke, at least rhetorically, with the PRI’s stifling economic statism. Peña Nieto has even proposed allowing greatly enhanced private investment, including foreign investment, in Mexico’s lumbering government-run petroleum monopoly, Pemex. PRI loyalists would have considered such a proposal heresy just a few years ago.

The greatest uncertainty, however, is how the new president will deal with the epidemic of drug violence plaguing the country. His position on that issue remained somewhat vague during the campaign. All three candidates promised to reduce the violence, and Peña Nieto’s approach emphasized attacking the whole range of crimes that impacted ordinary citizens rather than devoting so much attention and resources to going after the drug kingpins.

But critics wonder just how his promise will translate into actual policies. Washington’s drug warriors have been pleased with Calderón’s hard-line stance, and they worry that his successor will go easy on the cartels. Peña Nieto has tried to sooth such concerns by rejecting suggestions from such prominent figures as former president Fox that Mexico abandon the war on drugs and embrace a policy of legalization.

The new president likely will try to steer a middle course on the drug issue, as he seems inclined to do on economic matters. In his victory speech to cheering supporters, though, the president-elect took a hard line on drug policy, stating bluntly: “In the face of organized crime, there will be neither negotiation nor truce.” Those comments just as easily could have been expressed by Felipe Calderón. The new president’s actions, though, are likely to be more nuanced than his rhetoric might suggest.

What that means in practical terms is that a Peña Nieto administration will seek to restore the status quo ante—the rather pragmatic relationship between the government and the drug cartels that existed before the PRI’s political dominance ended at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Shannon O’Neil, the Douglas Dillon Fellow in Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, aptly describes the substance of that arrangement:

Through the Mexican Ministry of the Interior and the federal police, as well as governorships and other political offices, the government established patron-client relationships with drug traffickers (just as it did with other sectors of the economy and society). This arrangement limited violence against public officials, top traffickers, and civilians; made sure that court investigations never reached the upper ranks of the cartels; and defined the rules of the game for traffickers. This compact held even as drug production and transit accelerated.

It also held despite constant pressure from Washington to stop the growing flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States. In essence, a succession of PRI governments did just enough against the cartels to placate the United States and antidrug activists in Mexico but not so much that it truly disrupted the drug commerce and the status of the cartels.

But Mexico’s multiparty system today makes it unlikely that a PRI administration can engineer a return to the status quo ante. That arrangement worked precisely because the PRI was the only meaningful political actor in the country. Drug lords knew that as long as they kept the money flowing to PRI appointees (and kept the violence at manageable levels), they could conduct their commercial activities with a minimum of disruption. The current and prospective political environment makes such calculations far less reliable. Even if a cartel successfully bribes a PRI official in a city or state, for example, the next election could bring a PAN or PRD leader to power with a whole new set of appointees, and the process would have to begin all over again. Hedging political bets requires traffickers to bribe multiple political factions, significantly raising the financial costs and making that approach less secure. Given the underlying political uncertainty, the cartels are not likely to let their robust enforcement branches atrophy merely based on a temporary manifestation of government restraint.

Instead of pursuing the chimera of a return to the old arrangement with the cartels, Peña Nieto needs to bite the bullet and repudiate the war on drugs and the prohibition strategy that undergirds it—even if such apostasy risks incurring Washington’s wrath. Former president Fox put it well. “We should consider legalizing the production, distribution, and sale of drugs,” he argued, adding a succinct indictment of hard-line drug policies: “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.”

If Peña Nieto truly wants a fresh start for his country, he will neither try to execute an impossible return to the days of a cynical, corrupt PRI relationship with the cartels nor continue to pursue Calderón’s disastrous confrontational policies. He will instead explicitly abandon a war that has brought so much tragedy to Mexico and cannot be won.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America, forthcoming in October 2012.

Image: AlfaroGalan