Violence, Human Rights Abuses, and Corruption Exploded After Mexico’s Military Entered the Drug War

The New York Times reported Monday on the positions of each of the three candidates for Mexico’s presidency, an election which will be decided on July 1. The core argument of the article is that each candidate is promising a “major shift” away from the drug war policy of Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón. They each are placing, according to the Times,

a higher priority on reducing the violence in Mexico than on using arrests and seizures to block the flow of drugs to the United States. The candidates, while vowing to continue to fight drug trafficking, say they intend to eventually withdraw the Mexican Army from the drug fight. They are concerned that it has proved unfit for police work and has contributed to the high death toll, which has exceeded 50,000 since the departing president, Felipe Calderón, made the military a cornerstone of his battle against drug traffickers more than five years ago.

This sounds well enough and good. Doubly so if it were true which, in all likelihood, it isn’t. The Times article, to its credit, suggests as much itself, noting that Enrique Peña Nieto–who will almost certainly walk away with an easy victory–has lately ”suggested that while Mexico should continue to work with the United States government against organized crime, it should not ‘subordinate to the strategies of other countries. The task of the state, what should be its priority from my point of view, and what I have called for in this campaign, is to reduce the levels of violence,’ he said in an interview.”

But the reality is that Washington isn’t having it. “One senior Obama administration official said on Friday that Mr. Peña Nieto’s demand that the United States respect Mexican priorities ‘is a sound bite he is using for obvious political purposes.’ In private meetings, the official said, ‘what we basically get is that he fully appreciates and understands that if/when he wins, he is going to keep working with us.’

Well then.

The article then goes on to discuss fears that a Peña Nieto presidency–under the banner of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)–would possibly return Mexico to the bad old days of PRI authoritarianism. For his part, Peña Nieto

insisted in an interview that he was a fresh face representing a new democratic era for the party — going as far as to say he has never tried any illicit drug. But he nevertheless defended the PRI, saying the other parties have had their share of bad apples and suggesting that the return of the party would be another sign of Mexico’s maturing democracy.

Even if he was lying, many believe that the institutional arrangement of Mexico in the post-PRI authoritarian era would prevent a return to the old way of doing things. “They can get some of the guys at the top, but now you’ve got all these other guys running around doing whatever they want, and the state and local police can’t handle it,” said an American official who requested anonymity because of the political sensitivities….“What’s really quite clear is that the presidency is not what it used to be,” said Arturo Valenzuela, a Georgetown University professor and former top State Department official in the region. He added: “If the PRI comes back, it’s not going to be the way the PRI governed before, because the country is just so different. So the question is how will they run the country? They will have to function in a very complicated electoral democracy.”

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neil makes much the same point, and in greater detail, in a post at ForeignAffairs.com:

On a broader scale, over the last 12 years, power has been increasingly decentralized, making a return to the PRI’s historical hallmark, the “imperial presidency,” virtually impossible. Once upon a time, a leader such as Carlos Salinas — president from 1988 to 1994 — could dismiss half of the sitting governors during his term without a hint of blowback. Today states and their elected leaders are autonomous, both politically and increasingly economically, from the federal government.

In fact, states wield great power at the national level through their federal senators and representatives (who now often depend on the favor of the governor to stand for office). Peña Nieto knows this — he spent six years as governor of the State of Mexico. Although many scholars argue that this decentralization has not in fact been good for democracy — protecting the last bastions of authoritarianism in less electorally competitive states — it will nevertheless deter a return to the old political model in which Los Pinos could steamroll regional-level executives.

Civil society is stronger in Mexico today, too. A few decades ago, if the PRI found itself displeased with news coverage, it could literally stop the presses, as it held a monopoly on newsprint. Now Mexico has developed a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Mexican voters and society have also gained a stronger voice, using social media and information now publicly available through Mexico’s freedom of information law to shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.

This is all true. But what is left out of these discussions, curiously, is the fact that the intersection between security and representative government is precisely the spot where Mexico is at its most deeply undemocratic. The Mexican military is not under civilian control, nor is it really under the unified command of a single military figure save the president who technically is the highest ranking member of all. In this sense, then, Mexico’s much-touted democratic transition has been incomplete, a fact that relates directly to the questions at hand about the current election.

Until recently, the military high command has not been directly involved in fighting drug trafficking. Its entrance into the country’s drug wars have resulted in three chief outcomes–skyrocketing violence, human rights abuses, and corruption of the military ranks. None of these can be effectively checked without proper civilian oversight, and the third may prove to be most pernicious of all as the military’s ability to carry out its objectives, no matter how questionable, gets compromised by the personal interests of those at the top. Selective application of military power for the purposes of fighting certain cartels, and protecting others, is the worry here which holds out the possibility of the kind of complicity between government operators and the monied interests of drug traffickers that were a hallmark of the authoritarian era.

And yet the incomplete transition to democracy in Mexico is never discussed. A deeper conversation about the threats facing the country would move beyond the recognition that greater representative governance has been a positive step for Mexico–which in many ways it has–and shine the light on those pockets where there is still much work to be done, and problems to be tackled. Some of those challenges, including asserting greater civilian control of the military–a prerequisite, after all, in any fully democratic context–may prove frighteningly intractable. This is especially true when we consider polling data that suggests Mexicans don’t have a problem with the military as is so much as the way in which it has been ineffectively deployed by the president.

But the future of the country lies in such considerations, not in a hoped-for balance of power within the Mexican Congress or further decentralization of decision making in the name of some phantom democracy. And until these debates are fully engaged, we can expect more of the same from whomever becomes Mexico’s next president and worse from a military quickly disintegrating under the weight of inexorable corruption.