The authorities were boasting that all flights were on time as I landed at Mexico City's international airport on June 26 to cover the country's national election. Terminal 2 bustled with travelers; the duty-free shops gleamed with jewelry and alcohol, and the food courts were in full service mode. Only twenty-four hours earlier, however, travelers were crawling on the same terminal floor during a shootout that killed three federal police. The shooters escaped in broad daylight. The dead officers were not shot by narcotraffickers but by other police who apparently were working for the narcos. It turned out that AeroMexico stewardesses were helping export cocaine on flights to Spain. Bienvenidos to the Mexican labyrinth, where nothing is transparent, including elections.As I write this account, the election winner has not been certified. Serious irregularities in voting are being challenged. Over half of all ballots are being recounted by federal officials. Yet it is certain that the conservative party (Partido Accion Nacional) was massively rejected after a decade of rule. It also seems certain that the winner is Enrique Pe?a Nieto of the traditional PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institutional), commonly criticized as the "dinosaurs" in Mexico's political culture. Pe?a Nieto's mandate, however, rests on a mediocre 38 percent showing. Manuel L?pez Obrador, twice the candidate of the left-populist PRD (Partido Revoiutionario Democratica) won 32 percent in an election he says was fraudulent.
Assuming the outcome is sustained, the election proved that dinosaurs are not extinct in Mexico's politics. The PRI, which governed Mexico from the revolution until 2000, is a patronage-based coalition with support from traditional sectors. The new president, Pe?a Nieto is the most mediagenic of dinosaurs, and married to Ang?lica Rivera, a glamorous soap opera star on Televisa, the media giant that covered the story as a Mexican Camelot. The decisive vote margin was achieved by a cosmetic makeover of the dinosaur, to rephrase Sarah Palin's 2008 rhetoric about lipstick on pigs.
This was far more than a personality contest, however. As the New York Times clearly noted a week before the election, the outcome would be a voter mandate to end the drug war that has claimed over 60,000 lives since the outgoing president, Felipe Calder?n, sent the state's armed forces against his own people in 2007. The dilemma for the U.S. and Mexican military establishments was how to continue, even intensify, their drug war in spite of public rejection. Could they circumvent public opinion and continue business-as-usual? The handsome, smiling Pe?a Nieto was their man. His image was that of a modern man from the fashion covers, not an oligarch in shades. L?pez Obrador had to be stopped at all costs. In 2006, his opposition to NAFTA provoked American and Mexican corporations to spend millions on scary television ads describing him as another Castro, Ch?vez and Lula rolled into one. They barely defeated him, by less than 1 percent, in an election process in which the vote count was terminated arbitrarily with thousands of ballots uncounted. In response, L?pez Obrador's followers protested, shutting down access to Mexico City for several weeks.
This time, L?pez Obrador went to great lengths to erase the image of a Mexican Ch?vez. He and the PRD made a radiant sunflower the image of their campaign, and he promised a new violence-reduction policy based on "abrazos, no balazos." The English-language media translated "abrazos" to mean "hugs," as if L?pez Obrador was reinventing himself an elderly flower child. But L?pez Obrador said on many occasions he was calling for economic aid from the United States instead of attack helicopters. He remained a dire threat to both NAFTA and the drug war, at least in the eyes of the corporate and military elites.
Complicating matters further, the Mexican Right also was soured on the drug war that they had so much to do with launching. For example, the former PAN president, Vicente Fox, who governed from 2000 to 2006, denounced the drug war as useless and a fraud only weeks before the July 1 election. This meant that any consensus in support of continuing the drug war was shredded even before the election. So how to overcome the democratic result and soldier on? It was clear before the election that U.S. officials had a secret agreement with Pe?a Nieto to continue the military policy, though attempting to lessen civilian casualties. Three weeks before the election, one confident United States official told the New York Times that, from backroom discussions, "what we basically get is that [Pe?a Nieto] fully appreciates and understands that when/if he wins, he is going to keep working with us." It was a classic assertion of continued U.S. dominance over the political process in Mexico, exercised from the shadows. Pe?a Nieto demonstrated his subservience by quiet trips to Washington, where he reassured Congressional leaders there would be no deals or truces with the cartels.
The escalation was confirmed further when Pe?a Nieto, on the eve of the election, made an extraordinary announcement that he would appoint a retired foreign military leader, Colombia's Gen. Oscar Naranjo, as top adviser to Mexico's drug war approach. Gen. Naranjo is famous for implementing Colombia's military strategy of killing leaders of the Medell?n and Cali cocaine cartels in a dirty war that involved ultra-right paramilitaries along with U.S. ground troops, advisers and special forces. The appointment of Naranjo confirmed the 2010 prediction of former U.S. drug czar Robert Bonner that Mexico would be the next Colombia, the scene of the next war against the cartels (which in many cases had shifted their operations out of Colombia to Mexico and Central America). Writing in Foreign Affairs, Bonner warned that otherwise Mexico would become an intolerably dangerous narco-state on the U.S. border. Bonner also wrote blithely that Mexico's "increase in the number of drug-related homicides, although unfortunate, is a sign of progress."
Sure enough, two days after the election, Pe?a Nieto published a New York Times op-ed that vaguely promising to "re-examine" the drug war, but specifically promised to create a 40,000-member "gendarmerie" like Colombia's and expand Mexico's federal police by at least 35,000 officers. Unnamed "analysts" predicted a "surge" like that in Iraq in 2007, then led by Gen. David Petraeus, now CIA director.
The public can expect sensational headlines if Mexico captures or kills one or more "kingpins" in the new phase, on the model of killing Pablo Escobar in Colombia or Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideaway. While the kingpin strategy reaps media and political benefits, it is far from clear that stability or democratic reforms are the results. The kingpin strategy typically results in even greater violence as new actors do battle in a brutal turf competition. While homicides in Colombia did fall by a slender 2 percent last year, there was a 25 percent jump in the number of kidnapping and massacre victims, and the defense minister was forced to resign. The killing of Colombian labor and human rights leaders continues, and according to Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, there is a "consolidation of paramilitary and criminal networks in many parts of the country."
If he intends to continue the drug war without a democratic mandate, Pe?a Nieto will have to face down powerful and newly energized opposition at home, where there is increased resistance not only to the violence but also the neoliberal economic policies that leave millions of unemployed young people ripe for cartel recruitment. This year brought increased public anger against the Mexican media duopoly of Televisa and Azteca. First, there are the one-third of Mexican voters who supported L?pez Obrador, denied Pe?a Nieto a majority in parliament and maintained their popular majority in Mexico City. These are loyal voters who know that politics matters. As a result of PRD leadership, Mexico City is a viable municipality within what many believe is a failed state. Mexico City has a great public university, cultural treasures, a working transit system, subsidized healthcare, abortion services and permits same-sex marriage. There is no public threat from the cartels, the airport shootout being an exception to the norm.
The PRD, which broke from the PRI more than a decade ago, believes with significant evidence that it has been robbed of the presidency twice since 1988, first, when its presidential candidate Cuauht?moc C?rdenas was denied by egregious computer-driven fraud, and second, when L?pez Obrador lost by 0.58 percent in 2006. Otherwise, Mexico would have joined the new populist left that took power through elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Honduras and Paraguay (the latter two countries, along with Haiti, have suffered coups since the progressive victories). Instead of moving left, Mexico moved towards neoliberalism, resulting in greater inequality, unemployment, poverty and dependency on El Norte.
Besides the thriving PRD base, Pe?a Nieto faces additional challenges from a new student movement composed of tomorrow's likely leaders, known as #YoSoy132 (#IAm132). The hashtag comes from an incident during the presidential campaign when many students disrupted a speech by Pe?a Nieto, reminding him of the brutal repression he inflicted in 2006 as governor of Mexico State, against hundreds of people in the town of San Salvador Atenco. In response to the protest, Pe?a Nieto and the PRI accused the students of being agitators paid by the PRD and AMLO. In rage, 131 students quickly posted a YouTube video showing their official student ID cards and denied they were paid by anyone. Thousands more then adopted the hashtag #YoSoy132, and began a succession of marches and vigils up through election day.
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