The PRI and Loathing in Mexico City

Mexico City.

Welcome to a new era in Mexico – or so some would have you believe. Twelve years after finally losing power in the democratic transition of 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), aka “the dinosaur”, is back and attempting to rebrand itself as the medicine that Mexico needs in these blood-soaked neoliberal times. True to form, the T. Rex started making waves the day that party golden boy Enrique Peña Nieto took office on December 1st.

It’s a return of the party that governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years (1929-2000) and created the hugely corrupt and desperately undemocratic political system that prevails to this day. Blame former president Felipe Calderon of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) whose ill-advised, corruption-drenched “Drug War” took well over 60,000 lives in the past six years. Not to mention near-stagnant economic growth, rising poverty and the countryside devastated by US agricultural imports – all of which can, of course, be traced back to the PRI era and were merely reinforced by the “Christian democratic” PAN.

Welcome to Mexico’s political time warp.

Protests against Peña Nieto’s inauguration and the highly-manipulative, illegally-financed election campaign that brought him to power had been planned for months but nobody anticipated the controversy that ensued. As protesters clashed with police in Mexico City, over a hundred people were arrested (all but fourteen were soon released for lack of evidence). One protester lost an eye while a 67-year old theater director is still in a medically-induced coma after a near-fatal blow to the head from a tear gas canister.

The protesters, led by the vibrant #YoSoy132 pro-democracy movement, were overwhelmingly peaceful but a few isolated groups smashed windows and caused an alleged US$1.7 million of damage in the capital’s downtown, primarily targeting hotels, banks and businesses belonging to Citigroup, Wal-Mart and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

The heavy-handedness of the police was ultimately blamed on the power vacuum as the presidency changed hands. Fingers have been pointed at Mexico City’s center-left mayor (and likely presidential candidate in 2018) Marcelo Ebrard. Cops who were present that day told the media that orders came directly from Ebrard’s Chief of Police Manuel Mondragon y Kalb.

The #YoSoy132 movement, whose members diligently documented fraud during the electoral process and have remained resolutely non-partisan, has always stressed pacifism in its marches and naturally distanced itself from the riots. Evidence has emerged, however, that the PRI paid groups of thugs to carry out the violence with a view to defaming #YoSoy132 and other legitimate protesters. Such shenanigans, backed by a compliant media, were a classic party tactic to discredit social movements during its seven-decade regime.

Welcome to the PRI’s “soft” authoritarianism.

In an unexpected twist, the Zapatistas (also known as the EZLN) are back too, and how we’ve missed them. On December 21st, the Chiapas-based rebels-turned-social-activists came out in numbers not seen for years, marching silently on five cities in the impoverished southern state – the same cities they (briefly) occupied by force in January 1994. Their pre-Christmas comunicado to the Mexican people – on the day that the Mayan calendar entered a new era and also the fifteenth anniversary of the 1997 Acteal massacre – went as follows, and beautifully sums up the challenges ahead:

To Whom It May Concern:

Did you hear it? 

It’s the sound of their world ending. 

It’s that of ours resurging. 

The day that was the day, was night. 

The night will be the day that will be the day. 

Democracy! Liberty! Justice! 

The Man Behind the Quiff

So just who is this magnificent media creation, Enrique Peña Nieto? Debate still rages as to whether he’s “old PRI” or “new”. New in the sense that his mentor is Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the grand neoliberal president of the 1990s (a generation of Mexican power-brokers known as the technocrats) or old in that he hails from Mexico State, the most powerful party stronghold in the country. Enormous Estado de Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides, is home to some 15 million (mostly impoverished) souls and has long been a hotbed of corruption and organized crime.

Carlos Salinas was one of the most loathed presidents in Mexican history. This is a guy who doesn’t blame exploitative trade agreements like NAFTA for the country’s economic underperformance and grinding poverty; he blames the lack of further neoliberal reforms. And here they come: the tearing up of the worker-friendly 1970 Federal Labor Law is already in the bag thanks to a last-minute pact between the incoming administration and Felipe Calderon’s PAN in October.

On a visit to Washington shortly before his inauguration, Peña Nieto was described by US President Barack Obama as “a man who likes to get things done”. Tellingly, Mexico’s new president has hired the same PR firm as fellow Latin American right-wingers Alvaro Uribe and Porfirio Lobo with a view to polishing his international image. Cue articles everywhere from The Economist to Foreign Affairs hyping the promise of Mexico’s new era, “new PRI”, and new-found respect for democracy.

Peña Nieto followed in the footsteps of his uncle Arturo Montiel Rojas, winning the governorship of Mexico State in 2005, at which point he was immediately hyped by a PRI-friendly media as the country’s future president. At 46 years old, Peña is a housewife’s favorite and a glamorous antidote to the former ruling party’s “Jurassic PRI” image. A widower, his love life was splashed all over the society pages when he met actress Angelica Rivera in 2008. “The Seagull”, as she’s known, just happens to be a superstar for the dominant, PRI-sponsored Televisa network.

The president is personal friends with some of the most powerful business figures in the country, including Jorge Hank Rhon and World’s Richest Man Carlos Slim. As governor of Mexico State, he prided himself on eye-catching public works projects that saw multi-million dollar contracts handed out to his cronies in the Atlacomulco Group (the state’s ruling political-business elite) and Spanish construction firm OHL.

He’s also friends with current and ex-PRI governors, generals and other figures closely linked to the country’s drug mafia. A cartel member enrolled in the previous administration’s controversial Protected Witness program recently testified that the Sinaloa-based Beltran Leyva drug cartel had free rein at Mexico State’s Toluca Airport.

Those who did vote for Peña Nieto (some 19 million people) mainly came from poor rural areas where the PRI are masters at coercing voters with handouts and flashy infrastructure projects. Mexico’s urbanized middle class split its vote between right-winger Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent PAN and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). The former was undone by a lackluster campaign and association with lame duck Calderon; the left, as usual, was attacked beyond reason.

The jury’s still out on whether the return of the PRI signifies a return to the authoritarian-style politics of the past. Ostensibly, no; Mexico now has autonomous electoral institutions and Peña Nieto himself has touted the formation of an anticorruption commission but this is a country where such institutions are often barely allowed to function and even the electoral authorities repeatedly bow to political pressure.

Mexico’s “transition to democracy” in 2000 was always a ruse. By the 1990s, there was really no difference between the neoliberal agenda of the PRI and that of the PAN. Both parties bought the Washington Consensus wholesale and the PAN soon became marred by the same kind of corruption, cronyism and narco-politics that tarnished the dinosaur for so long. Many Mexicans just call them the “PRIAN” – a two-headed oligarchy bent on serving the interests of the country’s billionaires and foreign investment giants.

Part of the appeal of the PRI for voters was undoubtedly that the economy grew faster and the country developed more substantially during its 71-year reign; growth averaged 3.5% in the 1990s compared to 1.6% under the PAN’s Felipe Calderon. But that was then and this is now. Thanks to Calderon’s “macroeconomic stability” during the financial crisis, analysts are again hyping Mexico as the next big thing in the global economy. But when have they done anything else?

Peña Nieto’s first move as president was to urge the signing of a Pact for Mexico incorporating all three major parties. The participation of the left-leaning PRD was controversial. The Pacto por Mexico is supposedly a means of informally committing all three parties to common goals for the country’s future – namely further neoliberal policies – and has been viewed as a means of marginalizing debate as fiscal, energy, education and labor reforms take shape.

Drug War Redux 

One of the biggest myths about the PRI’s return is that they will “make peace with the narcos”, thus ending the so-called “drug war” (and parallel inter-gang rivalry) instigated by President Felipe Calderon in 2006. The old regime was well-known for its tolerance of organized crime. This argument conveniently leaves out the fact that the disintegration of the “drug cartels” occurred not under the PAN but rather the PRI administrations of Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo a decade earlier. The first major gang war began in Tijuana in 1992.

Peña Nieto has vowed to reduce the country’s murder rate by half within five years. Yet despite the intense media coverage of Mexico’s violence, the nation’s homicide rate is actually half that of Colombia’s, roughly on a par with Brazil and six times less than that of Honduras’ per capita rate. In Mexico, however, barely 5% of these murders are ever solved. The brutality of the killings has also been astonishing.

As of right now, Mexico’s “drug cartels” can be split into two factions – one headed by Joaquin El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and the other by the notorious Zetas (billed as “narco-terrorists” on both sides of the border). One dominates the Pacific Coast, the other the Gulf, with various territories, or plazas, disputed in between. Cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez (the latter the world’s “murder capital” in 2009-10) have calmed considerably since the Sinaloa Cartel took control but there are still potential flashpoints throughout the country.

The myth, of course, is that it’s all about drugs. According to the UN, Mexican mafia groups participate in twenty-two different kinds of organized crime, of which drug-trafficking is just one. The Zetas, in particular, have increasingly turned to extortion, kidnapping and human-trafficking to boost their earnings, and are estimated to make less than 50% of their income from drugs.

All the hype about marijuana legalization in the US states of Washington and Colorado hitting the Mexican cartels for six is thus nonsense; cocaine is actually their most lucrative market, which they now dominate over Colombian groups, while they rake in millions from plenty of other activities as well. The real problem is impunity.

Peña Nieto says that his anti-crime policy will focus on protecting ordinary citizens rather than pursuing major drug lords in showy, made-for-the-cameras busts (Felipe Calderon’s “kingpin strategy”). He wants a National Police force to replace the PAN-created Federal Police (itself a reboot of previous incarnations) and will keep the military on the nation’s streets for now. In what likely amounts to more than just PR, he’s also recruited former chief of the Colombian National Police Oscar Naranjo as a “special advisor”.

The investigative news site Narco News has already drawn potential parallels between Peña’s drug war policy and Colombia’s under Naranjo; draw the main groups into a “Devil’s cartel” and end violent rivalries by creating one unified drug-trafficking organization whose disputes are mediated by the state.

Welcome to the pax narco of old.

The mainstream Mexican media: pretty much silent. Huge chunks of it are owned by wealthy oligarchs perennially associated with the old ruling party. Only the likes of La Jornada, Proceso and Contralinea – constantly written off as muck-raking, left-wing rags – cover Mexico’s reality, along with a vibrant and growing community of online activists and bloggers. Facebook and Twitter are now heavily-utilized as political and social organizing tools as well.

It will be interesting to see where the #YoSoy132 pro-democracy movement goes from here. The stated goal of the group was to act as a de facto opposition to Peña Nieto’s administration. They’re the contemporary heirs of the legendary student movement of ’68, which saw hundreds of its members massacred by PRI government forces at Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City ahead of that year’s Olympic Games.

Back in May, as it became clear that Peña Nieto was going to steal the election, #YoSoy132 said it wanted to inspire a “Mexican Spring”; the country isn’t quite at its Tahrir Square moment just yet, but the policies that the new government aims to implement are only likely to antagonize an increasingly frustrated population.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico. He can be reached at: