Mexico 2010: The Spreading Crisis

Against the Current, No. 148, September/October 2010

Fred Rosen

ON JULY 4, in an atmosphere of widespread insecurity, unabated violence, and an uncertain allocation of authority and impunity,* Mexico held local elections in 15 of its 32 states.

The fear of violence and criminality is real and widespread in Mexico. Opinion polls, interviews with citizens, marches against impunity and insecurity, show that Mexicans of all social strata and across the political spectrum feel strongly about the need to put an end to the fear of violence. People tell pollsters and interviewers that they feel insecure going about their normal day-to-day business.

Many blame the actions of those in power for at least a portion of that insecurity. There is an expressed feeling that those who are supposed to protect the citizenry from criminal violence are powerless or unwilling to do so, or worse, are directly responsible for the violence itself.

A good indicator of this fear and distrust is the dramatic increase in the number of private security guards in the country. There are now over 125,000 private guards registered with the federal government. Entrepreneurs in the industry estimate the actual number of private guards — registered or not — to be close to 900,000.

As Mexicans went to the polls on July 4, the whereabouts of Diego Fernández de Cevallos, one of the most prominent and influential leaders of the conservative, currently ruling National Action Party (PAN) remained unknown. Fernández de Ceballos, a former presidential candidate known to friends and enemies alike as “El Jefe” (The Boss), disappeared, presumably kidnapped, near his ranch in the state of Querétaro on May 14. His family has asked that local and federal security officials not get involved in the private negotiations that are apparently taking place between family members and the kidnappers.

Aware of their inability (and/or unwillingness) to do much about the kidnappings plaguing the country, the authorities have apparently obliged, and the story has moved to the back pages — though it remains front and center in the public imagination. Indeed, one of the worrisome sources of insecurity is the current rash of kidnappings for ransom, for which there is no official count since the victims seldom notify the authorities.

Despite the lack of reliable statistics, it seems unarguable to most Mexicans that the kidnappings are as plentiful as they are democratic, striking families of the poor — who might have an emigrant son who can send a $500 ransom from Texas — as well as the wealthy, like the relatives of Jefe Diego, who are presumably being asked for a good deal more.

An equally fearsome source of insecurity is professional-style murder, which has shown that it can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. On the day of the elections, 39 assassinations attributed to organized crime took place throughout Mexico, a number somewhat higher than the year’s daily average, estimated by crime reporters for the daily paper El Universal to be about 28.

Killers for Hire

It is hard to separate the killings from the country’s booming international trade in illicit drugs (and small arms flowing south). The illicit drug-and-arms trade is extremely lucrative, and the stakes for market control are high. On a national scale, the Bank of Mexico has estimated that the trade now brings an annual US$35 billion in hard currency into Mexico, making it by far the country’s greatest source of export earnings.

Though the lords of this particular industry tend to lead lives that are nervous, brutish and short, they spend at least a part of their edgy lives in some version of the lap of luxury. Their underlings are nicely rewarded as well, so competition for position within the industry can be intense.

That said, the drug trade’s enforcers are by and large professional assassins called sicarios. Some are in the employ of one or another of the country’s drug cartels, and some work for one of the guns-for-hire gangs contracted by the cartels. Murder victims include members of rival gangs or cartels (reflecting struggles for market share), members of the same gang or cartel (internal struggles for power), law enforcement officials (reflecting payback for police or military actions or simply the taking out of cops and soldiers on rival cartel payrolls), politicians (for one of the above reasons or just to emphasize cartel/gang impunity), and citizens who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Since many of the gangs finance their activity through the collection of ransom payments, some of the murder victims are victims of kidnappings gone bad. (Some murder victims are young women who happen to live in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, where over the past 20 years hundreds of young women — mostly maquila workers — have been methodically abducted, tortured, killed and abandoned along highways or in city dumps. The phenomenon of femicide in Ciudad Juárez is a huge and terrible topic and the subject for another article.)

On June 28, a week before the elections, Rodolfo Torre, a candidate for governor of the northeastern border state of Tamaulipas, was murdered along with his private secretary, a local deputy and four bodyguards in an armed attack on his electoral caravan as it moved through the streets of Ciudad Victoria, the state capital.

The attack took place on a crowded street, in broad daylight and, according to witnesses, the killers did their work calmly and efficiently, as though certain, in the words of El Universal columnist Roberto Rock, “that no one would block their work, their escape or their impunity.”

A month earlier, José Mario Guajardo, the owner of a company called Agro Industrias Guajardo, and a candidate for mayor of the small Tamaulipas city of Valle Hermoso, was gunned down, along with his 21-year-old son and an employee of the company, by two men in his company’s offices.

The common assumption is that both Torre and Guajardo (who represented opposing political parties) were killed by members of one of the two main criminal groups that operate with impunity (except when they are killed by one another) in Tamaulipas: a murder-for-hire squad called the Zetas and their one-time employers — now deadly enemies — the drug trafficking Gulf Cartel. Why those two particular men were targeted for assassination remains anybody’s guess.

Elections Under the Crisis

Twelve of the 15 states holding elections on July 4 held high-profile votes for governor. The Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), the old ruling party that seemed down for the count following its third-place finish in the 2006 presidential election, captured nine of those governorships, and just over 50% of all the votes cast over the course of the day. Interestingly, the three statehouses they lost were in old PRI strongholds and two of the three — in Oaxaca and Puebla — had become infamous for the arbitrary, frequently brutal rule of PRI strongmen called caciques (chiefs).

In most state and local contests, the PRI was opposed by an alliance of the right-wing PAN, which now holds the presidency, and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). This unusual — some would say bizarre — alliance, designed apparently to maximize the political privileges flowing to members of the two allied parties, and to keep the PRI from once again shutting them out of the structures of national power, will last, leaders of both parties have hinted, at least through the next round of local elections in 2011, and perhaps even through the presidential election of 2012.

With some local variations, the issues broached by the candidates were the salient issues of crime, insecurity and impunity. The PRI argued, convincingly, that the no-holds-barred drug war declared by PAN president Felipe Calderón was not only ineffective in stopping the flow of drugs and arms, but by destabilizing the power structure of the industry, had led to the escalating violence and criminality of the past few years.

The PAN-PRD argued, equally convincingly, that the impunity enjoyed by old-time PRI political chiefs and corrupt law enforcement officials impeded the quest for public safety, the fair and credible functioning of law enforcement, and (as an afterthought) the inclusive pursuit of justice. A measure of the success of the opposing negative campaigns, therefore, is that the PAN-PRD won where PRI impunity was strongest, and the PRI won everywhere else.

In many parts of the country, most dramatically right now in Oaxaca, the demands for public security are demands to end the impunity that still characterizes large parts of Mexico’s old corporate apparatus: The public must be protected against abuses from the powerful. The successful PAN-PRD campaign in Oaxaca played on this sentiment.

Indeed, as Oaxacans went to the polls on July 4 to vote the PRI out of office — and to elect Gabino Cué, one of the few PAN-PRD candidates who actually came from the left, to be the state’s next governor — the indigenous municipality of San Juan Copala remained blockaded by a paramilitary group loyal to the state PRI. [The town blockade is also discussed by Scott Campbell in this issue of ATC — ed.]

San Juan Copala had declared itself to be an autonomous municipality following the repression unleashed by Governor Ulises Ruiz on striking teachers and their supporters in 2006. Since this past January, paramilitaries have prevented anyone from moving in and out of the town. In April, an international caravan carrying food, clean water, and other necessities to the community was fired upon and two people (including a young man from Finland) were killed. Organizers of a new caravan, attempting to negotiate safe passage with state authorities, were told by Oaxaca’s attorney general that negotiations would first have to take place with the besieging paramilitaries.

So who is really in charge of the blockade, the state or the paramilitaries? We don’t really know.Who Rules in Mexico?

As with the gangland killings of politicians in Tamaulipas, the question is raised by the San Juan Copala blockade: Who rules in Mexico?

Local caciques, drug cartels, professional hit squads, and corrupted law enforcement agencies have effectively carved out areas in which state violence has come under essentially private control. Despite renewed calls for “transparency” in government, the exercise of political power in Mexico remains opaque at all levels, from the nation state on down.

Following the July 4 voting, the PRI claimed victory for having taken nine of the 12 governorships up for election. The PAN-PRD claimed victory for having dislodged the old ruling cabal from its traditional bases of power: the states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa. President Felipe Calderón (a longtime PAN militant) claimed victory because almost half the electorate actually ventured out to vote. “The elections,” he proclaimed on election night, “were a clear message of society’s rejection of violence and of those trying to act at the margin of the law and an expression of plurality.”

Each of these claims is valid — up to a point.

The PRI, the party of pure power, had ruled Mexico for 70 years until its defeat in 2000 by the right-wing PAN, whose victory was sealed with a large number of “useful” (i.e. anti-PRI) votes from across the political spectrum. The PAN, the party of the right, had been formed in 1939 as an alliance between the Catholic Church hierarchy and the entrepreneurial class. Though allowed to compete in elections, and even to win occasionally at the state and local level, it was, until 2000, never able/allowed to win at the national level.

The party of the left, the PRD, arose in the late 1980s around two broad themes: the democratization of Mexico’s political system and the democratization of Mexico’s social relations. However imperfectly the PRD has represented the goals of political and social democracy, it has attracted a large following in pursuit of these goals.

The first goal called for the creation of a new set of democratic political institutions (a nonpartisan, independent electoral commission, for example), while the second called for the recreation of a social compact — the acknowledgement of a set of reciprocal obligations — between the state and the citizenry, especially the very poorest of Mexico’s citizens.

The first goal sought to break the stranglehold on political power of the long-ruling PRI, while the second sought to break the stranglehold on economic power of national and global elites. In its pursuit of the first goal, the PRD often found itself in an alliance of convenience with the conservative PAN. In its pursuit of the second, the PRD and the business-oriented PAN became deadly enemies.

Now, with the PAN and PRD running joint campaigns, the PRD’s second goal — social democracy — has been swept aside. Indeed, the PRD and PAN seem to have become mirror images of the PRI, characterized by the struggle for power for its own sake. Their bereft-of-ideas (except for getting tough on crime and — sometimes — impunity) alliance reflects a decline in political debate that seems to be accompanying the rise in political violence.

A constrained, limited political debate is now presented to the voting public, and activists and functionaries dedicated only to political power, can take their chances with any party. Rather than ideas, the parties are fighting for their perquisites and privileges, much like the internal battles of the old single-party PRI.

ATC 148, September-October 2010