News / Americas

Mexico Begins Search for New President as Criminal Violence Soars

Packages containing crystal methamphetamine seized during an anti-drug operation are displayed to the media in Tijuana, Mexico (file photo)
Packages containing crystal methamphetamine seized during an anti-drug operation are displayed to the media in Tijuana, Mexico (file photo)
Greg Flakus

On Sunday, July 3 Mexicans in the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City, will elect a new governor, while the current governor,   Enrique Pena Nieto campaigns to be elected president.  The politicking in Mexico comes as the current president, Felipe Calderon, is enmeshed in a war against drug cartels and other criminal organizations that has cost around 40,000 lives in the past five years. Some Mexicans hope a change in leadership may lead to diminished violence or even a truce with the powerful cartels, but, as  The war is likely to continue well into the next presidential term.

One of the international observers on hand for the voting in the state of Mexico is Professor George Grayson of the College of William and Mary, considered one of the top US experts on Mexico. He says Governor Enrique Pena Nieto wants to use the election as a springboard for his presidential campaign.

“He wants to make sure that his successor wins by a huge majority to give impetus to his juggernaut as he seeks to become chief executive next year, so this July 3rd gubernatorial contest is really in many ways a primary for next year's election," said Grayson.

Public opinion polls indicate Pena Nieto is likely to get his way Sunday and that he has a very good chance of winning the presidency next year.  He is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico uninterrupted for some 70 years before Vicente Fox of the National Action Party won the presidency in 2000.

Some Mexicans see a return of the PRI as a possible way of stopping the violence. They say the party, for all its unsavory reputation for corruption and abuse of power, did maintain public order when it was in power, perhaps even making deals with cartels to turn a blind eye to their drug smuggling as long as they avoided violence.

Grayson, who says the PRI did make such deals in the past, says that is unlikely now. He says Pena Nieto and other candidates have told him personally they would never negotiate with the cartels.

“It is not because they are opposed to trying to reach a modus vivendi [agreement for peaceful coexistence], but there are just too many big shots now and one of the cartels, which calls itself Los Zetas, could not be trusted any further than you could throw its paunchy leader," he said.

Aside from the trust factor, Grayson says there is also the question of with whom to negotiate.  The most powerful drug cartel, that run by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman in the western state of Sinoloa, is being challenged by not one, but several rivals whose alliances with each other are constantly shifting.  Most of the murders in Mexico over the past few years have involved gunmen from one cartel killing operatives from another cartel.

Some have suggested that legalization of drugs might curb the power of the cartels, but the men with guns are not likely to disappear from the scene even if that did happen. Security analyst Scott Stewart of Austin, Texas-based Stratfor, a global intelligence company, says US law enforcement agencies have determined that many of the cartels are not exclusively drug traffickers.

“Previously they would call them drug-trafficking organizations, or DTOs, and today they are increasingly referred to as trans-national criminal organizations, or TCOs, because they are involved in all these different crimes," said Stewart. "Especially a lot of the weaker organizations. Sinaloa does not seem  to be quite that much involved in these other crimes, but many of its enemies, especially the remnants of the Arellano-Felix organization, the remnants of the Carillo-Fuentes organization, Los Zetas, they are involved in kidnapping, extortion, cargo theft, alien smuggling, even CD and DVD piracy.”

The Mexican Attorney General's office estimates that criminal gangs are generating about two million dollars in cash flow every day by pirating music CDs and movies on DVD.  If criminals kill each other over drug profits, they will also fight over the money generated by other crimes.

Stewart says some Mexican politicians might see an advantage in favoring one or two major crime organizations in a bid to reduce the violence that has disrupted normal life in many cities near the US border.

“If the more extreme violent people can be taken out then the more business-oriented folks, the folks who are more interested in moving product and not necessarily creating these big battles might move to the top," he said.

Stewart sees a bigger problem holding back efforts by President Calderon to defeat the powerful criminal gangs. He says the massive profits of these cartels have benefitted the Mexican economy and, by extension, many elite citizens who may not have any direct connection to the criminal enterprises.

“It is not just street-level thugs running around with AK-47s," said Stewart. "We are talking about billions of dollars being infused into the Mexican economy.  That is the kind of money that is being handled by legitimate bankers, legitimate business people and people who are very well tied into the Mexican establishment.”

Stewart says similar benefits have landed north of the border, where U.S. investigators have found banks involved in money laundering for the Mexican cartels.  North Carolina-based Wachovia  Bank recently agreed to pay 160 million dollars to settle a U.S. government probe into alleged laundering of Mexican drug money.

But aside from any financial benefit some influential people might obtain, there is also the question of how much they are willing to do personally to strengthen their country's ability to fight crime. George Grayson says that is the element that he finds sadly lacking in Mexico.

“If there is going to be any progress on the drug war in Mexico the elites are going to have to commit themselves to fighting organized crime," he said. "They are largely cocooned from the violence.  They have state-of-the-art security systems in their homes, they have experienced drivers, they have bodyguards. We found in Colombia, progress could be made in their drug war only when the establishment committed itself to fighting the bad guys and thus far, outside of the north of Mexico, the elite simply has not made that commitment to fight organized crime. Until they do, the violence will continue to escalate.”

While crime and insecurity are likely to be issues in the coming presidential campaign in Mexico, Grayson says it is likely that the person who succeeds President Calderon next year will continue the fight against the criminal organizations, perhaps with some modifications or new programs. But, he says, the cartels are unlikely to disrupt elections because they know that if Mexico's governmental institutions breakdown and anarchy threatens, it could open the way to more direct intervention by the United States and a disastrous disruption of their lucrative illegal trade.

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