Why Mexico’s Elections Will Matter

Michael Wilson Feb 3, 2012

Most of us in the U.S. have spent our patience for electoral politics on the escalating gaffes by the Republican Party presidential contenders who, in their own ways, have demonstrated to the public how unsuitable they are to run the country, but our southern neighbors have a much more decisive election at hand.

Due to the political malleability of its legal system and the centralized power of its executive office, Mexico has a long history of bloodshed during presidential elections–candidates are assassinated; entire indigenous and peasant communities are invaded, tortured and sexually abused by the military; votes (and voters) disappear; political protest movements and workers' organizations are brutally crushed by police and military troops; political extortion and subordination, judicial repression of opposition parties and other forms of violence are expected and prevalent.

Mexico's presidential and 14 gubernatorial elections this coming July could mark an escalation of violence or a turning point for one of the U.S.'s largest trading partners.

Exacerbating the current electoral period's propensity to result in bloodshed is the $30 billion business of the international drug trade, some of which passes through the hands of Wall Street investors and bankers, U.S. arms manufacturers and government officials at every level, before an estimated $23 billion reaches the pockets of Mexican cartels annually.

As a result of U.S. drug interdiction programs in the Andean region and later in Colombia, which slowly broke the influence of South and Central American cartels, Mexican producers filled the vacuum created by the ongoing and untreated U.S. consumer demand for narcotics. Mexico produces the majority of the marijuana and methamphetamine, and between 70 and 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the U.S. A Mexican government report estimated that that the country's economy would contract by 63 percent, and the U.S. economy would contract 19 to 22 percent, if the drug trade was entirely curtailed.

Polls show Mexicans currently favor Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled the government for 71 years until 2000. In December, when invited to speak at the International Book Fair–in order to promote a book he claims to have written–Peña Nieto was unable to answer an audience question about which three books had influenced him most.

After minutes of hesitation, Peña Nieto said he had read "parts of" the Bible. He then proceeded to mistake book titles and authors, before helplessly apologizing, stating, "I have read a number of books…I have a hard time recalling the titles." This is not his first gaffe. In a 2009 interview, he could not remember the cause of his wife's death two years earlier.

In second place, polls show Josefina Vazquez Mota, from incumbent President Enrique Calderon's catholic-conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). She was Calderon's secretary of public education before joining the lower chamber of the Mexican congress. She faces widespread discontent about the state of everyday violence to which the country has descended in the last six years.

In a distant third is the center-left Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD), under candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was declared "Legitimate President of Mexico" by an assembly of protesters in downtown Mexico City on November of 2006.

It has been five years since the 2006 elections, which were largely regarded as fraudulent. A year before the election, the polls placed then-mayor of Mexico City Lopez Obrador ahead of the other two parties, despite months of a corporate-sponsored media campaign ensuring an economic recession and other social maladies if he were elected. The rhetoric from the PRD was to pry the nation from the super-rich, while the PAN and PRI parties equated class-consciousness with fascism and dictatorship.

The election was originally too close to call, as announced on election night by the electoral commission Instituto Federal Electoral (IFE). Both Calderon and Lopez Obrador declared victory.

In the coming days, reports of voter intimidation and vote-buying, ballot boxes found in a dump in Netzahualcoyotl and in sewage drains in Mexico City, ballot-stuffing and illegal campaigning surfaced. However, these and other rising issues of electoral fraud were drowned out in the media (dominated by the network conglomerates Televisa and TV Azteca), which, according to an IFE report to the Organization of American States, served as a base for the candidates with the most corporate funding. Five days after election day, IFE declared Calderon the winner.

Lopez Obrador failed at attempts to legally dispute the IFE's decision and called for a massive protest in Mexico City when the federal electoral court refused to authorize a full recount. The demonstrations lasted months, during which 1-2 million of his supporters occupied vital avenues in the largest metropolis in the hemisphere.

In December, days after taking office, Calderon opened a bloody pathway for U.S. intervention through the Merida Initiative, a $400 billion military security agreement to fight narcotic producers. In the first six months of his presidency, cartels executed an average of eight people each day.

The "war on drugs" has resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 people, the disappearance of over 100,000 Mexicans and the displacement of over 700,000 peasants in five years. Mexico's displaced, who ambulate in absolute poverty before either becoming the fodder of war or joining organized crime, cause a major economic strain on the country–i.e., they are a nuisance. Although crime runs at each level of society, with different levels of acceptability at different income levels, in Mexico, police and military forces are responsible or directly tied to the majority of the everyday violations of human rights reported.

The casualties and targets of Mexico's intensifying conflict are, by a grossly disproportionate margin, the poor, peasants, indigenous people, women, migrants and disaffected urban populations. There is little tolerance for a free press, and it has taken the title as the country with the greatest journalists murdered, surpassing countries such as Colombia and Iraq.

Left commentators agree that labor and energy reforms are planned, and the PRI and PAN candidates have already announced they seek privatization of Pemex, the parastatal oil company. In 2008, escalating issues with Luz y Fuerza, the electrical worker's union, led to the nepotistic privatization of electricity, and the firing of 44,000 workers. The PRI created national workers union, which has always excluded peasants from representation, is also quavering and in need of dismantling.

The national education workers' union, SNTE, notoriously corrupt and drenched in controversy, has a history of manipulating elections. In 2006, its PAN-affiliated president, Elba Gordillo used her position to influence the highest levels of the electoral commission, IFE, causing the replacement of poll workers in 22,000 sites across the country just before that year's election.

The July elections will determine more than the course of the pressing demand for energy, fiscal and labor reforms in Mexico–they will either lead to an increase in the repression of social forces calling for justice and feed the military- and prison-industrial complex, or set a path towards economic redistribution and justice for the poor, who join organized crime largely because they find no prospects in Mexico's current subservient position in the international division of labor.

The demands of the Washington consensus and international institutions led to rising income inequality and low growth since the 1970s, which slowly caused the PRI's eventual collapse under Ernesto Zedillo (December 1994-2000).

Zedillo was the selected PRI candidate after the party's original nominee, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated on March 23, 1994. His presidency sponsored multiple military massacres of organized indigenous land-defense communities, such as in Aguas Blancas and Acteal, as well as the signing of NAFTA. He also oversaw the privatization of key Mexican ports, airports, railroads, natural gas distribution systems and more.

A current Yale economist, Zedillo also serves on the board of directors of CitiGroup, Procter & Gamble, and Electronic Data Systems; he is a part of Coca-Cola's international advisory consort and a director of Union Pacific, to which some of Mexico's railroads were privatized during his presidency.

The PRI was replaced by PAN, which has followed an even more neoliberal course since it took over the presidency in 2000 under Vicente Fox, Coca-Cola's chief executive in Latin America. Fox was not the first non-PRI candidate who won the presidential elections, but–as the ruling class saw its one-party capitalist system grow unsustainable–he became the first allowed to assume the role. His victory was cheered as the great "democratic transition" for Mexico.

Under him, peasants in San Salvador Atenco resisted big business, bureaucracy and military forces, and stopped the expropriation of their lands–for which they would be "repaid" at less than $2 per square meter–for the $2.5 billion construction of a new international airport in 2003. At the time, President Fox deflected criticisms by stating that these rural workers had "won the lottery" with the government's repayment offer.

Further suggestive of the class structure in Mexico, current leading presidential contender Peña Nieto's new wife–a well known Mexican actress–tweeted: "Like, I think if Indians want to improve their conditions, they should get to work and stop being lazy or violent, like in Atenco."

The same community was the setting of a 2006 raid by federal police, which specifically targeted the leaders of the Fronte de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra (People's Front in Defense of Land), and a neighboring community's flower merchants, who organized against the replacement of their downtown square with a shopping mall. The confrontation resulted in the rape of 47 women, the arrests and brutal beatings of hundreds and the murder of two young solidarity activists–all at the hands of police, who continue to steal, rape and murder the rural poor, with increased fervor and impunity under the name of the war on drugs.

The decades-long PRI truce with drug traffickers–government turns a blind eye as long as cartels restrict street violence–collapsed under PAN, which was not immune to corruption and infiltration. Nahum Acosta, one of Fox's cabinet aides, was found to be a spy for the Juarez cartel. The toll of trafficking-related violence during Fox's six years in office was over 3,000, many of them serving as public displays of ruthlessness, meant to manifest fear and subordination.

To understand the importance of the war on drugs on international finance, arms production, worker's justice, violence, human rights and democracy, we must venture at least as far back as the Iran-Contra scandal, through which–as demonstrated by a scratch-in-the-surface investigation in the U.S. Congress in 1986–the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran (a subject of an arms embargo also engaged in a war against then-U.S. ally Iraq) via Israel to fund the anti-Sandinista Contra army in Nicaragua.

The Contras' mission was beyond the subversion of Nicaraguan democracy, support for the arms industry or the slaughter of both Iranians and Iraqis; they were also assisted by the CIA and U.S. aircraft in producing cocaine for distribution in the streets of the United States, namely African American and Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, as was documented in 1996.

The effects of Reagan's escalation of the repressive war on drugs on democracy abroad and at home are visible. With one in 100 adults behind bars, the U.S. boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world. It holds 25 percent of the world's total incarcerated population, and its per capita execution rate is among the top five. One in 30 Americans, more than 7.3 million, were on probation, parole, or in jail or prison at the end of 2008.

A 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics documented that at least half of the prison population is disproportionally represented by ethnic minorities, particularly Black and Hispanic males. The political economy of the militarization and criminalization of drug use created a vast and profoundly racist, class-based and for-profit justice system in the United States and provided another excuse to intervene in Latin American and world affairs for corporate interests.

The war on crime, just as the war on terror and the war on drugs, are part of the same "national security" neoconservative strategy that places corporate contracts and social repression over human rights and real security; they are all part of a system that logically results in a $30 billion drug trafficking business.

"So now we're narco-terrorists," said Bolivian President Evo Morales in 2008, after winning a referendum ushered against him by U.S.-backed elites in his country. Morales was the indigenous leader of a coca-growers' union before becoming president in 2006. "When they couldn't call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists."

As noted by Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans in a 2001 study:

Not so long ago, communism was "the enemy" and communists were demonized as a way of justifying gargantuan military expenditures. Now, fear of crime and the demonization of criminals serve a similar ideological purpose: to justify the use of tax dollars for the repression and incarceration of a growing percentage of our population. The omnipresent media blitz about serial killers, missing children, and "random violence" feeds our fear. In reality, however, most of the "criminals" we lock up are poor people who commit nonviolent crimes out of economic need. Violence occurs in less than 14 percent of all reported crime, and injuries occur in just 3 percent.

Mexico, which is already being referred to as a "failed state" due to the impunity, violence and insecurity that characterizes its plutocratic system of governance, is an example of why politics matter most where they seem degraded and futile. In a country whose politics are reduced to the legacy of different forms of competing plutocratic hegemonies, a natural and social result of history, the exceeding reports of violations of human rights against its poor, indigenous, peasant, female and left-wing populations are too close to home–it is at our peril that we turn a blind eye to them, as we do daily to the tragedies occurring globally.

For those of whose tax dollars are funding this "international security" and "development" charade, as well as fueling the demand for exceedingly criminalized substances, it's about time to notice.

This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.

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