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Mexico Elections 2012: Brutal Drug War Awaits Frontrunner Enrique Pena Nieto

On July 1 Mexicans will go to the polls in a much anticipated election to select a new president. The man who is poised to win is Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI ruled Mexico for over 70 years, until they lost power in 2000 to Vincente Fox. Unless there is a major upset, Pena Nieto, who is leading in the poll by close to 10 points, will see the PRI return to power.

These elections are being held against the backdrop of cartel violence that has ravaged the country for decades. President Pena Nieto’s biggest challenge once elected will be to curb and manage what is in essence a war on three fronts: between cartels, between the government and cartels, and between the cartels and the innocent citizens. His biggest test as president will be whether he can accomplish this. For that he must not only control the high crime rate, but also control corruption that has been deeply entrenched in the country’s political institutions.

During the election campaigns Pena Nieto has criticized current President Felipe Calderon’s agenda of targeting cartel cells and leaders head on. Calderon increased the size of the federal police from 4,000 officers to 35,000, with the aim of arresting top leaders, and sending a message about the his strength and resolve to end the war, by ending the cartels. Though many Mexican agreed with tough action, they have vocalized disappointment with the fact that Calderon’s tactics have resulted in increased violent crime, not the opposite. This increase has come as the result of cartels fighting each other and everyone else for lost ground, or seeking alternative means of revenue from the drug trade, such as extortion, kidnappings, etc.

Though Calderon’s anti-cartel agenda was the type of aggressive action that contained drug cartels in Colombia in the past few decades, Pena Nieto believes that in Mexico a more pragmatic approach is required. He has opted instead to push for the use of federal police in a less militant fashion, and instead direct their energy towards targeting the murders, kidnappings, and other crimes themselves, and implementing preventative measures. He wants much less focus on a war against the cartels, and more on crime containment. Many see this as a welcome change in policy, and may be just what the country needs.

Pena Nieto, though, has avoided discussion on the rampant corruption throughout the government. Drug cartels have infiltrated every level of government, including the judiciary and police forces, in order to gain both intelligence on government activity, and so that they can conduct their profitable trade with impunity. Bribes are given and expected by police officers in particular at all levels.

This has been the natural course in Mexico for over 80 years now, when the PRI first came to power, and was one of the ways they were able to keep control for all that time. However, as long as government institutions remain under the defacto control of the cartels, it will be very difficult for policing effort to truly have any effect on curbing the drug wars.

Critics have pointed out that Pena Nieto's position on focusing federal police on crime prevention, may lead to deals being brokered with cartel leaders. These fears are perfectly legitimate given the PRI’s history in creating the institutional corruption that exists today. In the past, PRI presidents made agreements with criminal organizations to tacitly allow them to continue operating as long as they kept violence to a minimum.

If this becomes the case, Pena Nietos may create a temporary solution but he would not actually eliminate the root cause of Mexico’s high crime rate. Given his popularity, though, Mexicans may actually want this, and themselves be willing to look away from the corruption in exchange for some immediate, albeit temporary relief from the cartel wars. Pena Nietos will have a difficult task ahead of him once he becomes President. It remains to be seen if he can purge Mexico of its number one social problem. 

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