Juarez, Mexico – After clinching Mexico’s presidency, Enrique Pena Nieto wants to show a divided electorate that he is not just a pretty face, but the man to tackle daunting challenges, including spiralling drug violence and an economy unable to produce enough jobs for the unemployed.
The former governor of Mexico State, the country’s most populous region, addressed supporters, attempting to allay fears that his party would regress to the nepotism and corruption which defined much of its 71 years of uninterrupted rule.
“The country now demands of us work, collaboration, and the most important thing, results,” Nieto told a cheering crowd in Mexico City. “It’s time to look forward to full democratic normalcy.”
With more than 50,000 dead as a result of drug violence, many Mexicans look back on the PRI era with nostalgia; their ability to govern with a steady hand seems appealing, even if it sometimes meant cracking down on reform-minded opponents with a heavy hand.
“I guess you could look at it like the PRI being an old friend,” Carla Diaz, a party youth activist, told Al Jazeera – as her colleagues drank beer and listened to a mariachi band, celebrating victory in quintessential Mexican style. “Twelve years ago, everyone was uncertain and wanted another political party. Now, we want to go back to the old, prosperous place.”
Hailed as another step in the triumphant global march of democracy, the conservative National Action Party’s victory in 2000 was greeted with enthusiasm in Mexico and beyond. Today that party’s legacy – inextricably linked with a failed battle against drug gangs – lies in shambles. Its candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, was the first to concede defeat.
The left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), however, posed a stronger challenge in the polls. Its leader, former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, will be the PRI’s main opposition.
In part, the gulf between the PRI and the PRD is a rural-urban divide, with voters in the sprawling capital coming out in force for Obrador, and their compatriots in the countryside backing Pena Nieto. But geography, of course, does not explain the whole story, and plenty of rural voters in Sinaloa state or Chiapas have voiced support for the social democratic PRD.
New wine in old bottles?
While gaining political capital from nostalgia, the PRI’s leaders are quick to say that the party has changed during its time in opposition.
“Nieto is part of a new generation of politicians,” Cesar Camacho, president of the Colosio Foundation, a PRI-linked think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “We have been pushed by the society to change.”
Nieto is the physical embodiment of this young, “new PRI”, even if he hails from an embedded political dynasty in Mexico State.
In the past, women have swooned at his rallies, sometimes chanting: “Pena Nieto, honey, I want you in my bed.” Mexico’s intelligentsia has not been impressed.
During a recent appearance at a book fair, Nieto was asked to name some writing that influenced him. After naming the Bible, he began to stutter. The late Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s literary titans, said Nieto’s “ignorance” cast serious doubts over his ability to lead modern Mexico.
But most voters clearly weren’t too concerned about what Nieto has or hasn’t been reading. He looks good on TV and has the common touch. His wife is a soap-opera star, and his ability to connect with average people is legendary, frequently eliciting tears and squeals.
Prior to their ousting in 2000, it is widely believed that local PRI officials, including state governors, had tacit understandings with drug cartels, allowing them to move product into the US, as long as they paid generous kickbacks and didn’t bother the locals. If a particular group stepped out of line, the state – along with competing gangsters – would use force to realign the balance.
“The next president has to negotiate with one cartel – one,” Rafael Morales, professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, told Al Jazeera.
With relatively low levels of consumption and production, few here see drugs as a Mexican problem. Deep down, many hope Pena Nieto will forge a deal, sign on the non-existent dotted line and let the gringos snort high-priced South American powder. Nieto has promised to continue confronting criminals, but most Mexicans appear to be tired of battling the forces of supply and demand.
In many regions, the state itself – unable to sufficiently rally public opinion behind the cause – is buckling under the pressure of fighting an enemy with more resources and a greater capacity for violence than any democracy can match.
“There are no police, no authorities here,” Manuel Vega, a voter from Guadalupe, a lawless rural town in the Juarez valley, told Al Jazeera. “We want more municipal police.”
After narrowly winning a disputed election and craving legitimacy from the army and other branches of the deep state, outgoing president Felipe Calderon needed an enemy. He found one in increasingly vicious and powerful cartels. Calderon kicked the hornet’s nest, sent the army into battle and set off a wave of grotesque violence.
From Colombia with love
To many voters, Pena Nieto’s decision to appoint former Colombian drug-war veteran General Oscar Naranjo as a security adviser is a sensible show of force.
“He [Naranjo] destroyed the Cali and Medellin cartels, [the most powerful trafficking organisations in the hemisphere prior to the rise of Mexican gangsters],” Amado Riveria Mendez, a voter in Sinaloa state, told Al Jazeera. “Bringing him could be a good position.”
There is no consensus on how stability was regained in urban Colombia, after the country was on the verge of becoming a failed state in the early 1990s. With the second highest number of internally displaced people on earth, after Sudan, however, many observers agree that the price of Colombia’s pacification programme was high and disproportionately borne by the rural poor.
Under former president Alvaro Uribe, Colombia decided to pick a winner in the drug war. That conflict has fundamental differences with battles raging across Mexico – Colombia’s traffickers included political organisations from the left and right – but there seems to be one common thread – the state realised the drug trade wasn’t going away.
Big cartels needed to be fractured, political opponents from the left smashed and – according to some – a winner declared in right-wing paramilitary groups and their supporters.
Beggar thy neighbour?
Fundamentally, Colombia’s strategy amounted to a beggar thy neighbour policy – it’s unclear if this is Narajano’s goal or plan in Mexico. After successfully fracturing the powerful Medellin and Cali cartels, the world’s largest trafficking organisations, Colombian dealers and producers became henchmen for increasingly confident Mexican gangs, reversing the relationship. If Mexico is successful in breaking cartels, the remaining gangs will likely move to the fragile states of Central America, unleashing new problems.
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But, based solely in Mexico’s national self-interest, if Narajano can fracture the Gulf and Juarez cartels, scuttle their smaller rivals including La Familia and remnants of the Beltrayn-Leyva organisation – in favour of a quiet dominance by the Sinaloa gang, Mexico’s most powerful trafficking organisation with deep roots in rural regions – then violence could probably be reduced, say analysts.
Negotiations with Los Zetas seems unlikely to prove fruitful. They are a sadistic band of decapitators, smugglers and extortionists whose early members were reportedly trained by US and Guatemalan former Special Forces, and officials may decide they simply have to be eliminated by force.
“I don’t want what Naranjo did, at that cost, to happen here,” Willivaldo Delgadillo, a human rights activist in Juarez, told Al Jazeera. “Periodically, we have acts of paramilitarism – some business people have opted for it.”
Country of contradictions
The drug war aside, the PRI will have to handle poverty and other social problems tearing Mexico’s social fabric, regardless of how it addresses security.
If the PRI is a party of internal contradictions, where elite businessmen campaign under the same banner as indigenous peasants in traditional garb representing chronically hungry constituents, then maybe it’s the flawed but satisfactory representative of a country that still isn’t quite comfortable in its own skin.
Few other places on the planet can be home to the world’s richest man and some of its poorest people. From the gritty factories in the north, to the five star hotels dotting Cancun and Los Cabos, to the misty mountains of Chiapas and the oil refineries of Tampico, the world’s fourteenth largest economy does not fit neatly into a single ideology. This is where the appeal of the PRI seems to originate.
Only time will tell if voters got what they asked for – or deserved.
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEchris