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Mexico election unlikely to reshape drug war

The top candidates in next week's presidential vote all emphasize plans for reducing the drug cartels' brutal violence, but nobody offers a significant new strategy.

June 24, 2012|By Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Hundreds of people demonstrate in May against drug violence -- specifically, forced disappearances -- in Mexico City. The violence is a major campaign issue in the upcoming presidential election.
Hundreds of people demonstrate in May against drug violence -- specifically,… (Omar Torres, AFP/Getty…)

MEXICO CITY — Six years into a ghastly drug war, none of the top candidates in next Sunday's presidential election has offered a significant new strategy to win a conflict that has claimed more than 50,000 lives and terrorized Mexican society.

Instead, the politicians emphasize reducing the increasingly brutal violence, as they seek to address the concern that weighs heavily on the minds of outraged Mexican voters.

The goal of dismantling the cartels was the hallmark of outgoing President Felipe Calderon's administration, and the candidates' cautious approach to the drug war suggests a tacit acknowledgment that, at this point at least, it remains an unrealistic one.

A close examination of the candidates' proposals offers little sign that the drug-war dynamic will change significantly in the short term.

"There is nothing that they are talking about that would dramatically change the current situation," said Ana Maria Salazar, a security analyst in Mexico and former official in the Pentagon. "There are some small differences, but the reality is everything they are putting on the table is mid- or long-term."

Like Calderon, the candidates advocate sending the army that has waged the war back to its barracks, but only after regions of the country have been pacified and a competent policing force has been put in place — neither likely to happen soon.

Like Calderon, the candidates stress the need to focus on money-laundering by drug traffickers; to bolster the judiciary; and to create more jobs, social programs and drug-use prevention schemes to discourage youths from joining cartels. Although these all formed part of Calderon's strategy, he made little progress, and any effort to accomplish them by the next president would require considerable time to produce results.

The candidate whom polls show most likely to win the election, Enrique Peña Nieto, comes under special scrutiny in his security platform because of his party's past ties with the cartels. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which was ousted from the presidency in 2000 after seven decades of uninterrupted rule, is known to have made deals with major drug traffickers in the past in exchange for peace and payoffs.

Peña Nieto has repeatedly had to reassure Mexican and international audiences that his government would not revive those tactics — even as several former governors and other officials from his party are under investigation for allegedly working with drug cartels. Several states that have always been run by the PRI, such as Tamaulipas and Veracruz, are also fiefdoms of unabashed cartel control.

"We will not have a truce with those who attack the life, liberty and property of our citizens," said Peña Nieto, former governor of the state of Mexico, the country's most populous. "The new focus will be to protect the citizens."

In interviews, stump speeches and news conferences, Peña Nieto said he would concentrate on reducing homicides, kidnappings and extortion but also would continue to attack the cartels' top and mid-level command structures.

"We should combat violence by centering our attention on fighting homicides, kidnapping and extortion, which seem to me the crimes that generate the greatest insecurity among the population," Peña Nieto said. But, he added, "the army, the armed forces, will remain on the street as long as there aren't optimal conditions for them to return gradually to the barracks."

Peña Nieto, 45, also proposes creating a gendarmerie of 40,000 soldiers under civilian command that would gradually replace the army in patrolling violent parts of Mexico and supplement a federal police force that he would also expand. Except for its use of soldiers, the proposed unit sounds very similar, in terms of training and duties, to the national police agency that Calderon has been trying to mold.

Part of the reticence to take a dramatically different tack is the sheer complexity of a vicious tangle of traffickers who have proliferated in number and grown in brutality, with an ever-deepening ability to corrupt authorities.

Differences among the candidates' proposals are of emphasis rather than substance.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, representing a coalition of leftist parties, stresses social root causes of the drug business. He says military force should not be the "central axis" of restoring peace, but he has no plans to quickly withdraw the estimated 45,000 army and navy troops deployed countrywide.

Lopez Obrador trails Peña Nieto by a wide margin but has been inching up in polls.

Josefina Vazquez Mota, of Calderon's conservative National Action Party, would go bigger than her rivals by expanding the federal police force to 150,000 agents, nearly four times its current size. Although her proposals hew most closely to the current government's, Vazquez Mota also speaks emphatically of reducing violence and "making Mexican families safe."

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