Mexico’s Election: A Vote for Peace, a Plan for War

Mexico’s Election: A Vote for Peace, a Plan for War

Mexico’s Election: A Vote for Peace, a Plan for War

The still-disputed July 1 election provided new momentum to end the drug war—but a shift in US policy is needed to truly bring that about.


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.

Complicating matters further, the Mexican Right also was soured on the drug war that they had so much to do with launching. For example, the former PAN president, Vicente Fox, who governed from 2000 to 2006, denounced the drug war as useless and a fraud only weeks before the July 1 election. This meant that any consensus in support of continuing the drug war was shredded even before the election. So how to overcome the democratic result and soldier on? It was clear before the election that US officials had a secret agreement with Peña Nieto to continue the military policy, though attempting to lessen civilian casualties. Three weeks before the election, one confident United States official told the New York Times that, from backroom discussions, “what we basically get is that [Peña Nieto] fully appreciates and understands that when/if he wins, he is going to keep working with us.“ It was a classic assertion of continued US dominance over the political process in Mexico, exercised from the shadows. Peña Nieto demonstrated his subservience by quiet trips to Washington, where he reassured Congressional leaders there would be no deals or truces with the cartels.

The escalation was confirmed further when Peña Nieto, on the eve of the election, made an extraordinary announcement that he would appoint a retired foreign military leader, Colombia’s Gen. Oscar Naranjo, as top adviser to Mexico’s drug war approach. Gen. Naranjo is famous for implementing Colombia’s military strategy of killing leaders of the Medellín and Cali cocaine cartels in a dirty war that involved ultra-right paramilitaries along with US ground troops, advisers and special forces. The appointment of Naranjo confirmed the 2010 prediction of former US drug czar Robert Bonner that Mexico would be the next Colombia, the scene of the next war against the cartels (which in many cases had shifted their operations out of Colombia to Mexico and Central America). Writing in Foreign Affairs, Bonner warned that otherwise Mexico would become an intolerably dangerous narco-state on the US border. Bonner also wrote blithely that Mexico’s “increase in the number of drug-related homicides, although unfortunate, is a sign of progress.”

Sure enough, two days after the election, Peña Nieto published a New York Times op-ed that vaguely promising to “re-examine” the drug war, but specifically promised to create a 40,000-member “gendarmerie” like Colombia’s and expand Mexico’s federal police by at least 35,000 officers. Unnamed “analysts” predicted a “surge” like that in Iraq in 2007, then led by Gen. David Petraeus, now CIA director.

The public can expect sensational headlines if Mexico captures or kills one or more “kingpins” in the new phase, on the model of killing Pablo Escobar in Colombia or Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideaway. While the kingpin strategy reaps media and political benefits, it is far from clear that stability or democratic reforms are the results. The kingpin strategy typically results in even greater violence as new actors do battle in a brutal turf competition. While homicides in Colombia did fall by a slender 2 percent last year, there was a 25 percent jump in the number of kidnapping and massacre victims, and the defense minister was forced to resign. The killing of Colombian labor and human rights leaders continues, and according to Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern, there is a “consolidation of paramilitary and criminal networks in many parts of the country.”

If he intends to continue the drug war without a democratic mandate, Peña Nieto will have to face down powerful and newly energized opposition at home, where there is increased resistance not only to the violence but also the neoliberal economic policies that leave millions of unemployed young people ripe for cartel recruitment. This year brought increased public anger against the Mexican media duopoly of Televisa and Azteca. First, there are the one-third of Mexican voters who supported López Obrador, denied Peña Nieto a majority in parliament and maintained their popular majority in Mexico City. These are loyal voters who know that politics matters. As a result of PRD leadership, Mexico City is a viable municipality within what many believe is a failed state. Mexico City has a great public university, cultural treasures, a working transit system, subsidized healthcare, abortion services and permits same-sex marriage. There is no public threat from the cartels, the airport shootout being an exception to the norm.

The PRD, which broke from the PRI more than a decade ago, believes with significant evidence that it has been robbed of the presidency twice since 1988, first, when its presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas was denied by egregious computer-driven fraud, and second, when López Obrador lost by 0.58 percent in 2006. Otherwise, Mexico would have joined the new populist left that took power through elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Honduras and Paraguay (the latter two countries, along with Haiti, have suffered coups since the progressive victories). Instead of moving left, Mexico moved towards neoliberalism, resulting in greater inequality, unemployment, poverty and dependency on El Norte.

Besides the thriving PRD base, Peña Nieto faces additional challenges from a new student movement composed of tomorrow’s likely leaders, known as #YoSoy132 (#IAm132). The hashtag comes from an incident during the presidential campaign when many students disrupted a speech by Peña Nieto, reminding him of the brutal repression he inflicted in 2006 as governor of Mexico State, against hundreds of people in the town of San Salvador Atenco. In response to the protest, Peña Nieto and the PRI accused the students of being agitators paid by the PRD and AMLO. In rage, 131 students quickly posted a YouTube video showing their official student ID cards and denied they were paid by anyone. Thousands more then adopted the hashtag #YoSoy132, and began a succession of marches and vigils up through election day. 

In this spring protest, the students turned their wrath against the Mexican media monopolies as well, and even forced a publicly televised debate with two of the presidential candidates. Peña Nieto refused to participate, and the debate went forward, a direct result of the student’s action. The students also had some effect on the electoral outcome, since most of them voted for López Obrador while staying independent and beyond the limits of campaign politics. I met several of them in Mexico City, and they left the clear impression that their new spirit will not fade away. They engaged in animated debates over whether their demands for political and media reform went far enough, with several telling me they aspired to be more like the Dream Act students in the US who risked deportation to force Barack Obama to recognize their demands.

In 1968, hundreds of similar students protesting in the center of Mexico City were shot, killed or “disappeared” by the security forces, their bodies taken away and their stories covered up. That era of state repression led to guerrilla insurgencies in several parts of Mexico, including the Zapatista uprising in 1994, which was led in part by former students who immersed themselves within indigenous communities in Chiapas state. The new generation of #YoSoy132 shares the legacy of 1968, but it completely different in basic ways. Instead of facing a military dictatorship posing as a democracy, they see themselves living under a de facto media dictatorship that defines a delusional reality for a majority of Mexicans. Instead of bullets aimed at their backs, they face media images targeting their minds. Instead of the face of fascism, they have a televised celebrity presidency. It’s therefore logical that the new insurgency is based on Facebook and Twitter, de facto guerrilla tools for breaking a media monopoly.

The other immediate challenge to Peña Nieto is from the rapid and spontaneous rise of a new peace movement against the drug war led by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son Juanelo was killed on March 28, 2011, sparking a surprising outpouring of support for ending the violence. This May 23, five weeks before the election, Sicilia came to a rally at Estela de Luz (the Pillar of Light), to speak in solidarity with thousands of the Mexican students. Sicilia told the #YoSoy132 rally that “I would want to see my son here. I can’t see him, but I see him in the thousands of youth here.” He went on to say “we are at a historical breaking point, a crisis of the world’s civilization” and, he envisioned “coming through the cracks in the state and crumbling economy to build something new.” Sicilia’s poetic cry, under Mexico’s own Pillar of Light, seemed to echo Leonard Cohen’s lyrical vision of change in Anthem, that “there’s a crack/ a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.”

Sicilia is planning to lead a caravan of Mexican families victimized by the drug war, and their US supporters, through the United States, beginning in Los Angeles August 17, and marching all the way to the White House.

There is another question that remains obscure in Mexico’s new political situation, that of whether Subcommandante Marcos and the Zapatistas will be heard from again. In 2001, after a nationwide mobilization similar to the 1963 March on Washington, Mexico’s political establishment rejected the 1996 San Andreas Accords, which would have provided rights and autonomy to Mexico’s indigenous. Thus excluded, Marcos and the Zapatistas eventually launched The Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña) in 2006, campaigning against the PAN, the PRI and PRD and even López Obrador, who may have lost the election as a result of Zapatista abstentions. The Zapatistas remained entirely silent during this year’s election period, not an unusual habit for them, but one giving rise to wild rumors, ranging from Marcos’ having “health problems” to one claim I heard, from a longtime supporter, that the Subcommandante had been displaced in an internal struggle. Since the conditions of Mexico’s indigenous and small farmers will be perpetuated by Peña Nieto’s neoliberal policies, renewed insurgencies are always a threat to the elite.

It is noteworthy that a serious peace movement has not brought much public attention to the drug war until the recent efforts spearheaded recently by Sicilia. There was a movement known as “No Mas Sangre” before Sicilia, but Sicilia catalyzed a larger movement and services for victims.

In the United States, the work to legitimize medical marijuana, pushed by such groups as the Soros-supported Drug Policy Alliance, have made gains in several states, only to be opposed by the Obama administration and domestic drug warriors. Such campaigns, however, tended to aim at ending the grossest irrationalities of the domestic prohibition on pot, not the greater horrors of the militarized drug war. In past decades, however, tens of thousands of Americans, including members of Congress, protested the dirty wars in Central America where secret operatives smuggled weapons and money to paramilitaries coordinated out of the CIA. But the political threat of being marginalized as “soft on narcotraffickers” has stifled the potential of protest until now (just as liberals rarely have opposed the drug wars at home for fear of being depicted as “soft on gangs”).

Before a new peace movement against the drug war can take root, at least two illusions have to be pierced. The first is that it’s largely a Mexican affair, with the United States playing only an inexpensive advisory role. This narrative plays on the unspoken racial assumption that Mexicans are inherently savage, a variation of the imperial theme that dark-skinned people care little about individual life. As one example among many, a very good article by William Finnegan in the New Yorker describes the violent Mexican cartels penetrating the placid world of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, “a civilized place where life goes on unmarked by the violence that disfigures large parts of Mexico.” On May 9, Finnegan writes, this dream world was disrupted by the sight of eighteen headless and dismembered bodies left on the road by a popular restaurant. The ruthless narco-terrorists known as Los Zetas were blamed. The victims were innocent citizens and students, not unsavory terrorists. The Zetas were planning even more beheadings and massacres.

Finnegan neglects to mention that Los Zetas are rogue special forces units trained largely by the United States. In what must be more than an oversight, Finnegan describes them as “deserters from the Mexican military’s elite special forces, recruited in the late nineteen-nineties as bodyguards and enforcers for the leader of the then formidable Gulf cartel.” In fact, the Zetas—originally known as the Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzes Especiales, “went through an intensive, six-month counterinsurgency and urban warfare training course from American, French and Israeli specialists,” according to crime reporter Jerry Langton, whose sources include the US Embassy in Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

The second distortion in public understanding is that the 60,000 dead Mexicans were all involved in the drug trade, and therefore deserved to die. In short, good riddance. But as El Universal noted in an October 2010 headline, the killings are at least as much a case of “social cleansing” (limpieza social) than a drug war between combatants. Outgoing Mexican president Felipe Calderón often proclaimed that 90 percent of the dead were mere criminals, but fewer than 5 percent of the homicides have ever been investigated. Based on newspaper accounts from Juárez, an epicenter of the violence, Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden concluded in their book El Sicario that “the overwhelming majority of the victims are ordinary people, small business proprietors who refused to pay extortion demands, mechanics, bus drivers, a woman selling burritos from a cart on the street, a clown juggling at an intersection, boys selling news papers, gum and perhaps nickel bags of cocaine or heroin on a street corner…”

To be clear, this is a war in which American forces are directly, if discreetly, engaged and where civilians are a huge proportion of the casualties. Immediately after Calderón launched his military offensive in December of 2006, President Bush initiated the $1.7 billion Plan Mexico, modeled on the earlier Plan Colombia, with the major emphasis on Bell and Black Hawk helicopters, military transport planes, gamma ray and X-ray scanners, telecommunications software, sniffing dogs and all the rest. Ginger Thompson, one of the best New York Times reporters on the region, has written recently of the US military’s “expanding its role. Sending new CIA operatives and retired military personnel…[and] considering private security contractors” to Mexico, in an effort that she says has shown few results. For the first time, she writes, the CIA and US military personnel are working side by side to plan operations, which are “devised to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil.” The Obama administration is sending aerial drones deep into Mexican territory to track the traffickers and coordinate de facto counterterrorism efforts. One US official at the Northern Command says, “the military is trying to take what it did in Afghanistan and do the same in Mexico.” This isn’t hyperbole; the US ambassador to Mexico is Earl Anthony Wayne, who was America’s deputy ambassador in Kabul from 2009 through 2011.

Despite the US administration’s rationale that violence must be prevented from “spilling over the border,” the Mexican cartels already operate in more than 200 American cities. On American television one can watch heavily camouflaged, heavily armed US forces hunting down young Mexican immigrants in the redwood “jungles” of Northern California. These hard-working immigrants have not only slipped into US cities but those of British Columbia as well, where several thousand new Mexican indocumentados, including Zeta operatives, are carving roles in the multibillion-dollar harvest and distribution of “BC Bud.” Up to 90 percent of 30,000 illegal firearms seized in Mexico—in 2008 alone—were bought with cartel money and smuggled south from Arizona and Texas, according to an ATF official. To complete the vicious circle, the New York Times reported last December 4 that “so far there are few signs that laundering the money has disrupted the cartel’s operations and little evidence that Mexican drug traffickers are feeling any serious pain.” In 2010, the DEA seized $1 billion in drug cash assets, and Mexico took an additional $26 million, out of an estimated flow of $17–39 billion.

Meanwhile, President Obama, in a 2010 atmosphere of political hysteria, spent $600 million to deploy an additional 1,500 border agents and surveillance drones to supplement some 18,000 American troops defending a multibillion-dollar wall against apparently very slippery Mexicans.

All these realities seem like scenes taken directly out of the popular—and darkly prophetic—Showtime series Weeds, starring Mary-Louise Parker as a widower who sells marijuana to make a living, commutes through underground tunnels from San Diego to Mexico, falls in love and has a baby with a Mexican narco-mayor, is pressured to become a DEA informant and is chased through North America by Mexican Sicarios. (Weeds is a favored alternative to the mainstream news around my house.)

It is more than forty years since the 1971 US Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended decriminalization of marijuana and Richard Nixon chose to start the “war on drugs” instead. Nixon’s first budget for this war, $100 million, has grown thirty-fold, to over $15 billion, adjusted for inflation, with little sign of reduced imports or consumption. This, not Afghanistan, would be America’s longest war, if it was recognized or admitted. Over these four decades, according to the AP, Americans have spent $49 billion to secure our borders, $33 billion on “Just Say No” advertisements, and $450 billion on federal prisoners where half the inmates are drug offenders. The total cost has been $1 trillion and our national drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, conceded in 2010 that “it has not been successful.”

Can America just say no to the drug war addiction?

The answer is far from clear, though the drug war’s failures are manifest. Political cowardice combined with pressure from drug war interest groups will sustain it for a time. But the pressures from south of the border, symbolized by Mexico’s voter mandate, may be decisive in finally forcing the madness to end. Last year the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report demanding alternatives, including responsible plans for legalization. The commission included former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, Kofi Annan, George Schultz, Paul Volcker and other world leaders. Jimmy Carter joined with Jesse Jackson in publishing an op-ed calling for the US government to adopt the commission’s recommendations. Moises Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy, wrote that “2012 will go down in history as the year when the pillars of Washington’s drug policy began to erode.”

A critical moment was the US-sponsored Summit of the Americas in Cartegena, Colombia, best-known in this country as the place where Obama’s secret service agents went on a spree with prostitutes and alcohol. (It is still unknown whether drugs were involved.) Allies of the United States, including the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica and Guatemala, vocally opposed the US policy and demanded steps towards legalization, or at least decriminalization, of marijuana. Both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden flatly rejected legalization, but, for the first time, welcomed the discussion itself as legitimate. The two American leaders attempted to cover themselves politically by boasting, in Biden’s words, that “the reason it warrants a discussion is, on examination you realize there are more problems with legalization than with non-legalization.”

It was a classic high point in the history of official doublespeak. Obama and Biden hid the fact that they had been forced into the discussion by Latin American leaders (even Calderón, then still Mexico’s president, called for “market alternatives” to the drug war). More importantly, declaring the acceptability of discussing legalization lifted an irrational prohibition of many decades—not a prohibition on drug use but on the very discussion of the subject in respectable company.

One must assume that Obama and Biden knew what they were doing by their coordinated remarks. While continuing to support the drug war they were inviting the public opposition into mainstream dialogue, what Naim meant by the pillars’ beginning to erode.

A conversation may be the ideal place to begin. Just as the US anti-war movement has discovered that the slogan “Out Now” is not sufficient to convince the undecided public or policy makers to end a foreign war, calls to simply legalize drugs fail to answer important questions and cause the continued marginalization of opponents. The process of defining an alternative needs research, debate and consensus on questions such as:

    whether to form an official bi-national commission to hold hearings on a plan to demilitarize and medicalize the current war;

    whether to begin the new regulatory regime with marijuana, and next consider cocaine and methamphetamines, the main three narcotics in the Mexico-US traffic;

    whether to limit the drugs to certified medical use at first;

    whether substitutes like methodone are feasible for other drugs;

    how to legalize and rationalize production and distribution in the face of certain cartel opposition;

    whether tax revenues should be reinvested in treatment and advertising the dangers of drug addiction;

    whether sales to minors should be criminalized;

    whether pro-drug advertising should be banned;

    whether campaign contributions from the legalized drug industry should be banned.

In considering whether and how to lift the prohibition on drugs, any new policies should be far more effective than those of the 1930s policies which ended the prohibitions on alcohol only to enact new laws and regulations that promoted alcoholism. Any drug policy reversal would have to be linked, in policy and politics, to reductions in mass incarceration and greater investments in treatment and education. Free-market advocates of legalization (the right to become an addict) will have to compromise and coexist with advocates of regulation and government social programs. Law enforcement will have to be persuaded that the present “war” is a failure based on cost-benefit analysis, and that safer alternatives exist. Insurmountable obstacles? If so, the costs and suffering will mount. But building a peace movement against the Vietnam War seemed insurmountable at first too.

The White House tantalizingly hinted at its future intentions in the magazine GQ only this week. “According to ongoing discussions with Obama aides and associates, if the president wins a second term, he plans to tackle another American war that has so far been successful only in perpetuating more misery: the four decades of the drug war.… from his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama has considered the drug war to be a failure.” Apparently this was one leak the White House positively approved.

Whether Obama is re-elected or not, the Mexican election provides new momentum to end the drug war. But it cannot be ended without a significant shift in American public opinion and priorities. Mexico and Central America have carried nearly all the burden so far. Dismantling the institutions of the drug war will take cross-border solidarity between social movements, political leaders, clergy, public health professionals, journalists and elements of the establishment who simply have had enough.

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