SANTIAGO By all indications, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political machine that dominated Mexican politics for 70 uninterrupted years before losing power in 2000, is set to regain the presidency in the countrys upcoming July 1 election.
The partys front-running candidate is Enrique Peña Nieto, a 45-year-old lawyer with boyish good looks and promises of reform. Many of the Mexicans who support him, however, dont in fact want reform. They got enough of that with Felipe Calderón, the current president, who reformed the countrys approach to the drug trade by launching an armed conflict in 2006 against drug trafficking cartels. Since then some 55,000 people have died - roughly the same number the United States lost in the Vietnam War.
Peña Nietos sizeable lead in the polls (17 percentage points at last count) has less to do with the strength of his candidacy than it does with how frustrated voters are over the current governments failures, particularly when it comes to the drug war and the economy. Both of those problems, in turn, have much to do with Mexicos geography: namely that it shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States.
Of all the countries in Latin America, Mexico which is a member along with Canada and the United States of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the most affected by the U.S. recession of 2008-2009. Even though its economy is growing again, Mexico is still feeling the effects of the 6.3% economic contraction it suffered in 2009.
Its giant northern neighbor is also the worlds largest consumer of illegal drugs. The United States, according to various studies, buys between $14 billion and $49 billion worth of illicit drugs annually. The lions share of those products pass through Mexico, whose trafficking cartels control 90% of the drugs that enter the United States, one U.S. Congressional study estimated.
Drug trafficking existed during the years that the PRI was in power as well. But never during the partys so-called perfect dictatorship, as some observers describe the PRIs decades-long grip on power, was there so much violence. Privately, some Mexicans who support Peña Nieto talk with nostalgia about the bygone days of PRI dominance, when the government kept things calm in Mexico by maintaining a tacit agreement with the cartels.
Even if such a pact did exist, thered be no way to replicate it now. Until the late 1990s, the cocaine that entered the United States was controlled by two Colombian cartels: one from Medellin, the other from Cali. Mexican cartels did have some market share, but nothing compared to what they were able to take control of once the Colombian government with help from U.S. money and troops dismantled their Cali and Medellin competitors. Also, when the Colombians ran the show, there were really just two mafia groups doing business. The Mexican cartels, in contrast, are numerous.
Even before Calderón dispatched government troops to engage them, the Mexican cartels were already fighting amongst themselves. They continue to do so now. When soldiers manage to take down one faction, violence tends to surge as the remaining groups battle for control of the defunct cartels former territory.
America's failed 'lock-em-up' strategy
What has the United States done in the meantime to help manage things on the consumption end? Over the past 30 years, U.S. authorities have increased by a factor of 10 prison sentences for people convicted of drug-related crimes. Tough sentencing laws havent stopped people from consuming drugs. But they have led to an increase in street-value drug prices. The other result is that the United States now has the worlds highest incarceration rate. According to a study by Kings College in London, nearly 1 in every 100 Americans is behind bars.
U.S. authorities spend $7 billion per year arresting and legally processing more than half a million people for drug-related offenses. But the drug market barely seems to be affected. An annual drug survey carried out among American students keeps coming up with the same results: last year just as they did in 1975 roughly 75% of respondents said it is very easy to obtain marijuana.
Peña Nieto faces a huge challenge. He has aired the idea of turning the approximately 50,000 soldiers involved in the fight against organized crime into a national guard. He says too that he will seek greater cooperation from the United States. But as long as there continues to be a market for illegal drugs, there will be organizations keen to satisfy that market by producing and distributing those drugs.
Some people are calling for legalization and decriminalization as a way to mitigate the problem. A few U.S. states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. And some Latin American countries, including Mexico, have decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs even cocaine, heroine and methamphetamines. The problem of narco-violence, however, remains.
Legalizing marijuana for recreational use would help. For several Mexican cartels, trafficking and distribution of the plant is their primary source of revenue. But even if the United States were to legalize marijuana consumption which, at least in the short term, seems highly unlikely there would still be high demand for other illegal drugs.
Several former Latin American presidents have joined forces in lobbying for polices that combine legalization and decriminalization with prevention and treatment programs. Instead of spending mountains of money on police and military repression, and on locking people up, governments should direct that money instead to the public health sector.
There is anecdotal evidence from various countries suggesting such an approach can be effective. The next Mexican president would do well to give this focus serious consideration, starting at home and then, once he or she has some positive results to demonstrate, share the evidence with authorities up north. Maybe President Obama or Mitt Romney will pay attention.
Read the original article in Spanish
Photo - Knight Foundation