Mexico’s July 1 presidential election presents a historic opportunity for the nation to finally initiate the path toward the construction of effective institutions and the rule of law. If the new president can begin his administration with solid popular support, he will have the opportunity to tackle the roots, rather than the symptoms, of the problems that have led to more than 60,000 murders in six years.
The principal reason why the Mexican government has failed to defeat organized crime is a lack of political legitimacy and institutional strength at the top. Six years ago, the presidential election was grossly mismanaged, and almost half of the population concluded that sitting President Felipe Calderón did not actually receive a majority of votes. Since then, Calderón has spent most of his energy on building political support for himself, instead of spearheading the institutional transformation needed to confront Mexico´s great social and economic ills.
The recent arrests of three generals and a lieutenant colonel accused of involvement with organized crime are a case in point. These officers held top posts in the administration, and one, Tomás Angeles Dauahare, even served as the assistant defense secretary. U.S. law enforcement has had doubts about their activities for almost four years, but only now, in the heat of the presidential campaign, has Calderón decided to act. The suspicion is that the generals are being punished for swinging their support away from Calderón´s presidential candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, and toward Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate from the old authoritarian Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI).
But the real scandal is not that Calderón has decided to arrest the generals, but that he refused to do so earlier. Apparently, he preferred to tolerate a few bad apples to avoid political problems with the military early on in his administration. That set a terrible example of impunity for the rest of the armed forces. If the top brass can get away with acts of high treason, it makes it almost impossible to control the rank and file.
Calderón has followed a similar logic with his police chief, Genaro García Luna. Mexico’s supreme court recently recognized that García Luna masterminded the fabrication of the arrest of a Frenchwoman, Florence Cassez, for the purpose of transmitting it “live” on national television as a publicity stunt.
Scandals involving corruption and abuse of power by the Federal Police are not uncommon. This force has also been highly ineffective in bringing peace to areas it formally controls, such as Ciudad Juárez. But instead of dismissing or reprimanding García Luna, Calderón has stood unflinchingly by his friend and political ally.
The 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies recently dumped outside Monterrey are the clearest evidence of the consequences of Calderón’s strategy of targeted impunity. It is most likely that these killings were not connected to conflicts between rival drug gangs, but rather were a criminal group’s attempt to intimidate the population and flaunt its power. The dead may well be innocent migrants who were on their way to the U.S.
Such a gruesome display of power is only possible when the rule of law is rotten at the core.
The principal challenge for the upcoming election is to assure that the new president has solid popular support and sufficient political independence. This would provide the leader with the institutional strength needed to take on the networks of corruption that today hold up reform in numerous key areas.
The educational system is one area in urgent need of transformation. For Mexico to entice its youth away from crime and toward jobs in the formal sector, it needs to better compete in the global economy. And this requires significantly improving public schools. But to do so, the government first needs to break with the corrupt and authoritarian leadership of the teachers’ union led by Elba Esther Gordillo, who has held back change for decades.
Another example is money laundering. Over the past five years, the Calderón administration has opened 1,376 investigations but achieved only 79 convictions. To succeed, the federal government needs to take the risky move of examining the often complex relationships between legitimate businesses and the underground drug economy. This can be completed successfully only from a position of political strength.
The PRI’s Peña Nieto promises to improve governance if elected, but his cozy relationship with the party’s backward old guard casts a long shadow of doubt on whether he would actually be able to do so. Calderón’s candidate, Vásquez Mota, has also claimed to be “different” but has refused to clearly distinguish herself from the sitting president. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist candidate running for a second time, is perhaps the best hope because his principal proposal is precisely to build institutions and root out corruption.
Regardless of who is elected, the most important challenge in the short run is for the electoral authorities to guarantee the total transparency and legality of the results. Mexico simply cannot afford another six years of an illegitimate president without the political will needed to undertake the institutional reforms required to bring peace and prosperity to North America***