A member of the student movement "YoSoy132" ("I am 132") wears white surgical gloves during a protest at the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) in Mexico City June 21, 2012. REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya
In an unexpected turn of events, the eruption of a new youth movement has transformed the prospects for Mexico’s July 1 presidential elections. A month ago, the candidate from the old authoritarian Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), Enrique Peña Nieto, seemed poised to win easily by a two-digit margin and bring back the ways of the past. But after weeks of student protests against the imposition of Peña Nieto by the dominant television duopoly, as well as a series of corruption scandals that implicate the PRI, leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador has come back within striking distance.
Mexico’s emerging “#YoSoy132” student movement shares much with similar mobilizations throughout the world over the past year and a half, but with a distinctive electoral twist. As in Egypt, Spain and the United States, social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have exploded with activity and facilitated the organization of youth marches and protests. Nevertheless, unlike the Arab Spring, the Mexican protests are not directed against the sitting president but against a presidential candidate. And unlike the Spanish uprisings, electoral politics are seen to be at the center instead of at the margins of the movement. Also, in contrast to the Occupy movement and Mexico’s long tradition of raucous protests, this time around the youth have been particularly careful not to disrupt traffic or take control of public spaces.
The common thread running through the movement is students’ frustration at the lack of progress that has accompanied Mexico’s slow democratic transition. Mexico is today more violent, more corrupt and more unequal than it was in the year 2000, when the PRI was pushed out after over seventy years of one-party rule. The twelve years of government by the right-wing Party of National Action (PAN) has only put a new gloss on the same old authoritarian ways of conducting politics.
When the PAN took control there was hope that an alternation in power at the top would at least lead to more honest government. Unfortunately, instead of starting off with an aggressive cleanup operation, Presidents Vicente Fox (2000–06) and Felipe Calderón (2006–12) quickly adapted to the old traditions of patronage, corruption and state capture. For instance, Mexico’s score on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index has fallen from an already low score of 3.7 (out of 10) in 2001 to a dismal 3.0 in 2011, now tied with Malawi and Madagascar.
The bitter failure of the drug war, which has led to more than 60,000 violent deaths over the past five years, is only the most glaring example of the profound institutional weakness of the state, which was inherited from the PRI and has been aggravated by the PAN. Only 5 percent of crimes are eventually punished in Mexico, according to a study conducted by the National University, and only 35 percent of Mexicans trust the police, according to a recent Gallup poll. The government achieved only seventy-nine convictions for money laundering, out of 1,376 investigations conducted during the first five years of Calderón’s administration, from 2007 to 2011.
In such a context, rolling out 45,000 soldiers onto Mexico’s streets and highways has only made the situation worse by provoking the criminals. Calderón’s decision to privilege brute force over the rule of law has led to a dangerous arms race between the government and the organized crime syndicates as well as territorial disputes between drug gangs, which have destroyed the social fabric in entire regions of the country.