- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2012

The front-runner in Mexico’s presidential race represents a party known for allowing drug-trafficking cartels semiautonomous control of certain regions during its rule in the previous century.

The prospect of a victory by Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the July 1 presidential election has troubled U.S. policymakers about drug-control efforts with Mexico.

Over the past five years, the U.S. has backed the bare-knuckles war on drug cartels by President Felipe Calderon, who is barred by the constitution from serving a second six-year term.

“In private, you hear concern from a lot of U.S. policymakers about how the PRI would deal with organized crime,” said Andrew Selee, who directs the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mr. Selee stressed that “the U.S. government is likely to adapt to whatever government is elected in Mexico.”

His comments shed light on the debate over how to proceed with a policy that during the past five years has involved the deployment of CIA operatives and drone aircraft in the fight against the cartels.

A high-ranking Mexican official told The Washington Times that “strategic law enforcement and intelligence collaboration — bilateral, regional and global — between the U.S. and Mexico has advanced at an unprecedented rate since Calderon took office.”

“A lot of policymakers in Washington would be concerned to see that evaporate,” regardless of who wins the upcoming election, the Mexican official said.

It’s a subject that the Obama administration has not been eager to discuss.

U.S. investment

“We would expect to continue to work closely with the next government, led by whatever political party, elected by the Mexican people,” said William Ostick, a spokesman for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department.

Congress has approved about $1.6 billion in drug-war aid to the Calderon administration since 2008 under a program known as the Merida Initiative.

Initially focused on training police and delivering military hardware, the program is shifting to help Mexico strengthen its justice system, State Department officials said.

CIA operatives and retired U.S. military personnel also have been sent to an “intelligence fusion center” near Monterrey, Mexico, and officials have said hundreds of drone missions are being flown in support of the war on drug cartels.

The U.S. support, however, represents a fraction of the estimated $45 billion that Mexico has spent on the war under Mr. Calderon, whose administration bankrolled a top-secret $100 million underground bunker and has deployed 45,000 army troops across 18 Mexican states since taking office in 2006.

The crackdown appears to have helped stem the flow of U.S.-bound cocaine. Total cocaine seizures in the U.S. dropped from 201 metric tons in 2005 to 109 metric tons in 2009, suggesting that “the availability of cocaine in the United States has stabilized at a reduced level,” the United Nations says in its 2011 World Drug Report.

Although violence soared during the same period in Mexico, the report cited a drop in Mexican cocaine seizures from 48 metric tons in 2007 to 22 metric tons in 2009.

Mr. Calderon’s center-right National Action Party (PAN) has held the presidency since 2000. A victory by Mr. Nieto would return power to the PRI, which held the presidency throughout most of the past century.

Few dispute that the PRI has evolved over the past decade, pushing younger candidates, such as the 45-year-old Mr. Nieto, to its forefront.

But Mr. Nieto’s security policy has worried some because he has been quoted in the Mexican press as supporting a withdrawal of military forces from the war on cartels.

Violent toll

Debate, meanwhile, has focused on the extent to which the PRI’s resurgent popularity stems from its reputation for having maintained peace in the past by conceding to drug traffickers.

“It’s well-known that during the PRI’s supremacy in Mexico from the 1940s onward into the 1980s, they kept drug violence at a low and acceptable level by cutting deals with various drug kingpins,” said Hal Brands, a historian and Latin America analyst at Duke University. “The cartels would provide bribes and keep violence to a minimum, and in return, the authorities would turn a blind eye to drug trafficking.”

Mr. Brands said it is “unlikely that the PRI would go back to the explicit deal-cutting that you saw in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” but public dissatisfaction with the spike in bloodshed over the past five years suggests such tactics may have newfound electoral appeal.

The PRI won a lopsided victory in state-level elections last summer, two months after scores of demonstrators flooded Mexico City to protest the violence that has killed an estimated 47,500 people during the past five years.

A message of the demonstrators is that the killings would not be happening were it not for the U.S. consumption of illegal drugs.

But the bloodshed has centered on Mexicans killing Mexicans and has been particularly vicious, at times involving running gunbattles and dismembered bodies.

While Mexico is divided among at least seven major cartels, Los Zetas, which controls real estate along the Gulf of Mexico, is known as the most violent for decapitating members of rival gangs.

“It’s not just the PRI that’s getting tired of drug violence,” Mr. Brands said. “This stuff has been really gruesome, and it’s taking a real psychological toll on the population.

“I think if there was a way of reducing the violence, even if it meant being less aggressive on enforcement issues, a lot of Mexicans would understandably be attracted to that potential solution.”

A common feeling is that Mr. Calderon’s approach has not resulted in “any progress in terms of security,” said Alfonso Jimenez, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “More than 40,000 people dead in Mexico means the opposite has happened.”

PRI popularity, he said, stems from a public yearning for leadership that can “negotiate the peace in terms of letting the government embrace strategies other than combating the drug cartels the way Calderon has.”

Characterizations of the PRI as a cartel deal-cutter are inaccurate and reflect an image of the PRI being promoted by its opponents, Mr. Jimenez added.

Yet Mr. Calderon appeared to promote the image himself in October when he told the New York Times that “there are many in the PRI who think the deals of the past would work now.”

The remark also may have been a reference to longtime PRI member Socrates Rizzo Garcia, who told an audience in Mexico in February that the PRI’s old way of doing business at least guaranteed “drug trafficking did not disturb the social peace.”

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