The authorities were boasting that all flights were on time as I landed at Mexico City’s international airport on June 26 to cover the country’s national election. Terminal 2 bustled with travelers; the duty-free shops gleamed with jewelry and alcohol, and the food courts were in full service mode. Only twenty-four hours earlier, however, travelers were crawling on the same terminal floor during a shootout that killed three federal police. The shooters escaped in broad daylight. The dead officers were not shot by narcotraffickers but by other police who apparently were working for the narcos. It turned out that AeroMexico stewardesses were helping export cocaine on flights to Spain. Bienvenidos to the Mexican labyrinth, where nothing is transparent, including elections.
As I write this account, the election winner has not been certified. Serious irregularities in voting are being challenged. Over half of all ballots are being recounted by federal officials. Yet it is certain that the conservative party (Partido Accion Nacional) was massively rejected after a decade of rule. It also seems certain that the winner is Enrique Peña Nieto of the traditional PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institutional), commonly criticized as the “dinosaurs” in Mexico’s political culture. Peña Nieto’s mandate, however, rests on a mediocre 38 percent showing. Manuel López Obrador, twice the candidate of the left-populist PRD (Partido Revoiutionario Democratica) won 32 percent in an election he says was fraudulent.
Assuming the outcome is sustained, the election proved that dinosaurs are not extinct in Mexico’s politics. The PRI, which governed Mexico from the revolution until 2000, is a patronage-based coalition with support from traditional sectors. The new president, Peña Nieto is the most mediagenic of dinosaurs, and married to Angélica Rivera, a glamorous soap opera star on Televisa, the media giant that covered the story as a Mexican Camelot. The decisive vote margin was achieved by a cosmetic makeover of the dinosaur, to rephrase Sarah Palin’s 2008 rhetoric about lipstick on pigs.
This was far more than a personality contest, however. As the New York Times clearly noted a week before the election, the outcome would be a voter mandate to end the drug war that has claimed over 60,000 lives since the outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, sent the state’s armed forces against his own people in 2007. The dilemma for the US and Mexican military establishments was how to continue, even intensify, their drug war in spite of public rejection. Could they circumvent public opinion and continue business-as-usual? The handsome, smiling Peña Nieto was their man. His image was that of a modern man from the fashion covers, not an oligarch in shades. López Obrador had to be stopped at all costs. In 2006, his opposition to NAFTA provoked American and Mexican corporations to spend millions on scary television ads describing him as another Castro, Chávez and Lula rolled into one. They barely defeated him, by less than 1 percent, in an election process in which the vote count was terminated arbitrarily with thousands of ballots uncounted. In response, López Obrador’s followers protested, shutting down access to Mexico City for several weeks.
This time, López Obrador went to great lengths to erase the image of a Mexican Chávez. He and the PRD made a radiant sunflower the image of their campaign, and he promised a new violence-reduction policy based on “abrazos, no balazos.” The English-language media translated “abrazos” to mean “hugs,” as if López Obrador was reinventing himself an elderly flower child. But López Obrador said on many occasions he was calling for economic aid from the United States instead of attack helicopters. He remained a dire threat to both NAFTA and the drug war, at least in the eyes of the corporate and military elites.