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On the night of July 1, Enrique Peña Nieto shouted before cameras, “this Sunday, Mexico won!” The presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Peña used the speech to declare himself the winner, promising an “honest” and “democratic presidency.”
Peña believes he has defeated both the conservative incumbent Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), which placed legal restrictions on the privatization of state enterprises, and the promise of redistribution posed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático. The PRI is expected to return to market liberalization policies under Pena, the election’s largest spender, who has promised “neither a pact nor a truce” in the war on crime. As soon as legally possible, television networks’ exit polls fired their verdict—Peña by five, ten or even fifteen percent—and the electoral commission’s first count confirms him as virtual president.
The PRI also took key governorships for example in the state of Yucatán, where it won by less than 400 votes. The return of the PRI comes in the face of an escalating conflict, the violence of which is palpable even across its borders. The party has a long history corruption and violence, and the patterns of its connections to the drug trade are well documented.
Dismissing history, Mexicans have given the party another chance. Many still believe in the PRI, despite decades of growing inequality, poverty and cronyism. Simply, the party relentlessly crushed its opposition, maintained national unity through violence, and retained order in the streets.
Understandably, some long for the days in which the government stayed out of the way of criminal organizations and these consequently stayed out of public view. Under the PAN-led “war on drugs,” the everyday lives of many citizens have become increasingly affected by crime—the effects of the war may seem more immediately damaging than the instability created by the PRI’s economic policy.
However, many see the escalating power of the cartels has some of its roots in PRI-led neoliberalization, as well as how the PRI handled its relationship with organized crime. In Mexico State, where Pena was governor, women are murdered at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.
Laura Becerril, a woman leaving the polls, commented, “I don’t even know how Pena won—everybody I know says they voted for López Obrador.” “I have a friend who got there in the afternoon and couldn’t vote because they were out of ballots,” she tells me tepidly.
More than 1,000 citizen reports of such anomalies can be read online (www.ObservacionElectoral2012.com.mx). These range from delinquent proselytism, unusual conditions at polls, and missing ballots in left-leaning districts, to vote buying and violence against monitors. According to a survey by academics and specialists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 71 percent of Mexicans believe electoral fraud to be a possibility, according to La Jornada. They may be drawing from recent experience, such as the 1988 “system collapse” electoral fraud, or the 2006 contested presidential appointment. Some could even venture far more deeply into Mexico’s history of exploitation and resistance.
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The 1821 emancipation from colonialism only shifted power to the local elites. It was then ruled by various generals (40 governments in 50 years) and invaded by the U.S. In the late 19th century, Mexico underwent several reforms that undercut the power of the Catholic Church and the military; to do this, it elected an indigenous Supreme Justice to the presidency, before France, England and Spain invaded, using external debt as an excuse to take ports.
After 30 years of one military dictatorship, indigenous uprisings and worker strikes became a full-blown revolution that overturned the power structure and enacted redistributive reforms; however, the “revolutionary” party used these events to consolidate. It centralized the executive power, set up unions and coopted them, and brutally silenced decades of resistance and dissent.
Meanwhile, corruption and populism—evidenced in acts like the nationalization of petroleum in 1938 (to the dismay of U.S. Standard Oil)—defined the state monopoly. During the Cold War, it saw macroeconomic growth (and mounting inequality) and adopted the U.S. National Security Doctrine. Mexico became the “perfect dictatorship.”
In 1982, it began to restructure policy with neoliberal reforms that opened the economy to international capital. The influx of investment and commodities culminated in the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Small-scale producers declined and migration skyrocketed. By this time, the United States had secured a national security state in Colombia. Although the U.S. war on drugs did not reduce demand for drugs in North America, it shifted patterns in their production, transportation and distribution. It created the rise of El Chapo Guzmán, the metaphor representing Mexico’s narco-traffickers. The notoriously violent cartel, Los Zetas, was once a branch of the Mexican military, created through U.S. military assistance under National Security Doctrine.
The party lost the presidency in 2000, creating a cloud of dust. The power vacuum was coupled with scandals and manipulations. Every form of political attacks were waged in law, media, and the streets. Mexico reached a level of instability that looked as if it could not collapse any further; however, the plausibility of extraction from the world’s 6th largest petroleum reserves would be protected by larger power structures. Two weeks after taking office, president Felipe Calderón opened a war on drug cartels. In six years, militarization has resulted in the deaths of 60,000 and the disappearance of 100,000. The state of affairs has transformed Mexico, and led to the inspiring rise of student-led movements like #YoSoy132 or the transnational network Movimiento Regeneración Nacional.
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Peña has vaguely promised a change of strategy before the Mexican populace; to U.S. policymakers, he avows the continuation of the anti-cartel military combat. On Sunday night, Calderón celebrated Peña’s victory and asked the public to confront together the “many things” that are wrong with Mexico. Days ago, Calderón announced he plans to leave the country at the end of his term.
Michael Wilson is a graduate fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz; he is currently editing his forthcoming book about the U.S.-led “war on drugs” in Mexico.