by Nick Garver
WASHINGTON – It has been just over six months since Enrique Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s president. His ascension to power marked the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI), which had ruled Mexico as a one-party state for seven decades prior to the 2000 election of Vicente Fox of the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party, or PAN).
The sexenium of Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón of the PAN, was marked by bloodshed; Calderón took a more aggressive stance against the drug cartels by sending in the army to confront the problem and employing a “beheading” strategy, meaning the targeting of cartel kingpins. Tens of thousands of Mexicans died in the resulting violence, with numbers ranging from the official government count of 47,000 to Human Rights Watch’s tally of 65,000.
The return of the PRI indicates the Mexican populace was thirsty for a different approach to the drug war. To assess how Peña Nieto has done so far, I asked a few questions to Dr. Duncan Wood, currently the Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here in Washington. Prior to holding this position, Dr. Wood was a professor and director of the International Relations program for 17 years at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) in Mexico City. While his research focuses on the Mexican energy sector, his expertise extends into North American relations more broadly as well.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation:
When Peña Nieto was first elected, I imagine Mexicans were excited about prospects for change. Has public approval for Peña Nieta died down since he first took office?
Pena Nieto has enjoyed pretty consistent approval ratings since taking office and they are good but not spectacular. Mexico’s polity remains quite divided and it is essential that the reform agenda in the country continues, and that it delivers higher levels of economic growth to guarantee that the President continues to enjoy popularity.
When I saw then-Governor of Mexico State Peña Nieto speak at Georgetown a year and a half ago, he shied away from mentions of drug trafficking and said that his administration would focus on reducing the rates of three crimes: homicide, kidnapping, and extortion. In the first six months of the Peña Nieto Administration, has there been a fundamental shift towards these areas and away from the arresting of kingpins strategy favored by former President Calderón?
Certainly there has been a shift in strategy. Less high profile arrests and interdictions, more focus on building resilient communities. In terms of impact, official figures suggest that homicides have come down by 18% since December. A number of Mexican commentators have questioned the reliability of the figures, but at least there are official statistics again after two years of no official reporting. In terms of kidnapping and extortion, the picture is not clear.
Irrespective of the strategy employed by Peña Nieto, has the security situation visibly changed?
The public security situation in Mexico was always going to change as this is an evolving reality. In some senses it is about the maturing of the drug violence, in others about the fluid situation of organized crime. What we can say is that the level of violence is still too high, and that certain areas of the country are still drastically affected by the absence of the rule of law. Tamaulipas and certain parts of Guerrero, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Chihuahua and even Nuevo León continue to be afflicted by the violence.
Institutional weakness is one of the main reasons Mexico has struggled with violence and corruption. In prepared statements at both the Wilson Center and the Brookings Institution, Minister for Special Affairs at the Mexican Embassy to the United States Ariel Moutsatsos aptly pointed out that Mexico, while having good health and education institutions, has judicial and security institutions that lag far behind. Why hasn’t Mexico’s recent economic growth translated into greater financial resources to strengthen institutions? Is this likely to occur in the Peña Nieto sexenium?
The first reason is that Mexico’s economic growth has been, quite frankly, disappointing over the past decade or so. Even in the first six months of this sexenio, the Mexican economy has flattered to deceive, growing only 0.8% in the first quarter of 2013. The second reason is that the Mexican government’s tax take is among the lowest in the OECD and in Latin America. The lack of fiscal revenue means that the Mexican government’s resources have been insufficient to build those strong institutions that are needed to counter public security threats. Mexico currently spends only 2% of its GDP on security and around 1% of its GDP on the struggle against organized crime. The third reason is that institutional strengthening is not just about financial resources; training, education and a culture that refuses to accept corruption are essential elements.
NOTE: The opinions expressed by those interviewed on this site do not reflect those of Nick Garver, nor does he explicitly endorse them.