Can Mexico’s Presidential Hopefuls Stop the Bodies Piling Up?

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Miguel Sierra / EPA

The 'Z 100 percent' graffiti seen here refers to the criminal group Los Zetas at the scene where 49 mutilated bodies were found near a highway in Cadereyta, Monterrey, Northern Mexico, May 13, 2012.

Drug thugs dumped 49 bloodied and dismembered corpses on a northern Mexican highway on Sunday, May 13. We journalists are finding little new to say, few fresh insights to offer, about these all too frequent narco-massacres in Mexico and the 50,000 people murdered so far in the country’s endless drug war. That’s troubling, because one of the worst things that could happen is that the world becomes inured to the ghastly violence. But at this point, what worries us more is that the leading candidates in Mexico’s July 1 presidential election really don’t seem to have anything new to say about this crisis either.

Critics of Mexican President Felipe Calderón, whose six-year-long military campaign against the drug cartels has in many ways exacerbated the violence, often call the war “Calderón’s Iraq.” But when former U.S. President George W. Bush left office in 2009, the real Iraq War was still his successor’s problem – and the same will be true of whomever follows Calderón. (He is constitutionally limited to one six-year term.) So far, the three top politicos vying to replace Calderón have offered little more than generalities, or remedies Calderón has already put forward, about how to end a conflict that is killing its share of innocents as well as monstrous traffickers. (Officials don’t dismiss the possibility that some if not all of the 49 newest mutilated victims weren’t narcos but civilians like migrant workers who couldn’t pay narco-extortionists.) 

The front-runner is Enrique Peña Nieto, former Governor of Mexico state, near Mexico City, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI ruled Mexico as a one-party dictatorship for 71 years until Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) finally toppled it in the 2000 presidential elections. During its 20th-century reign, the PRI was infamous for drug corruption – but because of its cozy arrangement with the cartels, drug violence in those days was more controlled and less horrific, and many Mexicans hope the party’s return to power will mean some sort of Pax PRI-ista.

The only problem: today that looks all but impossible even for the PRI. Mexico’s proliferating drug cartels, especially the bloodthirsty former military commandos known as the Zetas, who are believed responsible for Sunday’s atrocity 75 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, seem well beyond any political control. In fact, some of Mexico’s most violence-plagued states today, like northern Tamaulipas, are run by the PRI – including former Tamaulipas Governor Tomás Yarrington, who left office in 2005 and whom the U.S. accuses of laundering millions of dollars for gangs like the Zetas. (He denies it, and it should be noted the PAN has had its own corruption scandals since 2000.)

Which means that if Peña wins – and he leads his closest competitor by 17 points in voter polls – the PRI will have to do battle with the cartels, not do deals with them. Yet while Peña acknowledged last week that public security is the issue that “anguishes” Mexicans most, he has yet to serve up much in the way of a different tack aside from proposing a “national gendarmerie,” or a force of soldier-police officers. To many that’s simply a fancier name for what Calderón already has on Mexico’s streets: soldiers playing cops because Mexico’s cops are for the most part too corrupt and incompetent to rely on. Peña to his credit also calls for more serious professionalization of judges, prosecutors and police, including more homogeneously trained state forces; but Calderón has pushed similar legislation, only to see it languish inside Mexico’s do-nothing Congress.

That Congress’s lower chamber is controlled by the PRI – which makes Mexican pundits wonder if the party intends to finally pass what is essentially Calderón’s judicial reforms once Peña is President. As cynical as that sounds, it’s better than interminably blocking the reforms Mexico most needs. (Soldiers don’t bring down organized crime; professional cops do.) And that – the prospect of less reform gridlock – may be one big reason Peña holds such a commanding lead over the PAN’s Josefina Vásquez Mota and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Neither of those candidates is electrifying the electorate, either, when it comes to drug war solutions. Vásquez recently told the Wall Street Journal that she favors a “militarized national police” force of 150,000 members; but again, how that differs from what’s out there now isn’t very clear. For his part, López, who narrowly lost the 2006 election to Calderón, has said only that he’ll “stop the war” against the cartels and build a justice system “with humane criteria.”

The bottom line is that police and judicial reform is the only long-term solution to Mexico’s narco-nightmare. (That and reduced drug demand in the U.S., but given how stubbornly Washington clings to its own failed drug war strategies, that’s doubtful.) The short-term solution is improving economic opportunity for lower-income Mexicans (almost half the population still lives in poverty) so they’ll have alternatives to working for the drug cartels that rake in more than $30 billion a year. Calderón came to that realization too late in his presidency, and the trio trying to succeed him have made it a central plank of their platforms. But if they don’t want to see bodies stacked up on Mexican highways when one of them hands off the presidency in 2018, they’ll need to get more serious – and specific – about security.