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Will Mexico’s Drug Cartels Influence the Country’s Presidential Election?

Paul Imison Mar 23, 2012

The pre-campaign hype surrounding Mexico’s presidential election on July 1st has been largely dominated by one topic: will the country’s “drug cartels” influence the outcome of the race – whether by cash or by bullet? With his National Action Party (PAN) still trailing its old enemy, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in the polls, President Felipe Calderón is beating the drum loudly, insisting that a PRI victory would signify “narco-influence” in the electoral process. Calderón’s six-year term – which ends December 1st – will forever be remembered for his US-sponsored crackdown on the drug trade, which has left more than 50,000 people dead since 2006.

Such speculation is inevitable but the problem is that when Calderón speaks, much of the international media – following Washington’s lead – takes his word as gospel. According to the official narrative, Mexico was teetering on the brink of “failed state” status and Calderón was the heroic figure (“the Little Churchill”, as Mexican magazine Proceso mockingly calls him) who had the cojones to tackle the drug gangs head-on. The PAN, in power since 2000, is a strongly pro-business party and has been the preferred choice of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.   

Illicit drug money has fueled the Mexican economy for decades, although it was the 1990s when tensions between the leading criminal organizations began to explode. Upon taking office in 2006, President Calderón escalated the rivalry by deploying the military and heavily-armed police against them in what he himself termed a “war”. The result has been a bloody struggle for territory and no end to either the flow of drugs or the depth of corruption. Beset by criticism for the failure of his policy, Calderón stubbornly maintains that had he not acted, the criminals “would have taken over the country”.

Yet the talk of organized crime influencing this year’s race and the sensationalistic coverage it has whipped up, presupposes two things: one that tainted money (the Mexican drug trade may be worth US$30-50 billion per year) hasn’t influenced the country’s elections before; and two, that the PAN is utterly innocent of such chicanery.
“Drug War” Games

Calderón set as an example of “narco-influence” the elections in his home state of Michoacán last November where as many as fifty candidates quit the race because of threats (one mayoral candidate for the PAN was murdered) and a local cell of the Zetas cartel distributed propaganda backing a PRI candidate. Notably, those candidates that were threatened came from all three major parties.

Michoacán is one of Mexico’s more troubled states, host to a turf war between a gang called Los Caballeros Templarios (“The Knights Templar”) and the Zetas-backed La Familia Michoacana. But Calderón also had a personal axe to grind – his sister lost the gubernatorial race to the PRI’s Fausto Vallejo Figueroa. Likewise, the main storyline of this year’s presidential race is the PRI’s effort to regain power from the party that ended its 71-year dynasty at the turn of this century.

Investigations into corrupt officials – from police chiefs to state governors – as well as the testimony of high-ranking drug-traffickers attest to the fact that “plazas” (the Spanish word for territories in which organized crime groups operate – whether a municipality or an entire state) are “bought and sold”. The PRI has generally taken the brunt of accusations of complicity during twelve years of PAN governance, but neither the PAN, nor the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), have emerged whiter-than-white either.

In 2009, federal prosecutors ordered the arrest of over 30 local and state officials from Michoacán for links to the La Familia mob. Most were from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which had run the PAN so close in the 2006 presidential contest. By April of last year, every single one of those officials had been acquitted.

It’s unlikely that any of the major parties in this year’s election are immune to the temptation of drug money, if indeed they are aware (or care) where the big sums of cash that fund their campaigns come from. Although the PRD – or at least its present candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador – generally has a cleaner reputation than the PAN or PRI, the brother of ex-PRD governor of Michoacán, Leonel Godoy, is currently on the run after being accused of links to “narco”.

“The Special Relationship”

Throughout his six-year term, Felipe Calderón has been repeatedly accused – as was his predecessor, Vicente Fox – of favoring the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s oldest and most well-connected drug-trafficking group, in the struggle for control of the drug trade. Since the PAN came to power, the group has expanded its territory significantly and become likely the largest criminal organization in the Americas.

Led by the notorious Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the group has fought turf wars in strategically-valuable border cities like Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez – the cause of much of Mexico’s violence. Yet a 2010 investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) in the US revealed that the group accounted for just 12% of arrests made by federal authorities against members of organized crime. 

Edgardo Buscaglia, a Mexico-based law professor and leading expert on organized crime, has said of the rumors: “If you look at the main organized crime group in Mexico, that is, the Sinaloa [Cartel], it has been left relatively untouched. The Sinaloa has clearly been the winner of all that competition among [the] groups. And as a result of that, they have gained more economic power, they have been able to corrupt with more frequency and corrupt with more scope… Has the Sinaloa infiltrated the Mexican government? Absolutely. Has the Sinaloa infiltrated the Mexican military? Absolutely.”

The political coup of the year – an “October surprise” a la mexicana and something that would almost certainly revive the PAN’s chances in the election – would be the capture or killing of “El Chapo”, who has been seemingly untouchable since his escape from prison in 2001. While such a stunt would do little to dent the multi-billion dollar drug trade, Guzmán has become such a symbol of Mexico’s violence that his arrest or execution would be Mexico’s equivalent of the US hit on Osama Bin Laden – a metaphorical slaying of the bogeyman designed to justify the “Drug War” policy.

Some argue that Guzmán is simply too important, too powerful and too heavily-protected to be taken down by the government. But Mexican governments have downed top drug lords before when the political benefits (or pressure from the United States) have outweighed the advantages of protecting them. Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo a.k.a “El Padrino” – the so-called “godfather” of Mexican drug-trafficking – evaded capture for years before being arrested in 1989, allegedly on the orders of the first President Bush to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari as they thrashed out the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

So, yes, Mexico’s drug-trafficking mafia will certainly influence this year’s elections – in cash, more than likely in threats, and perhaps even with the fall of the most notorious kingpin of all. But pretending that this will be the first time such a phenomenon has occurred, or that the Sinaloa Cartel has not flourished under President Calderón’s “Drug War”, is pure electoral one-upmanship.

This article was originally published by Upside Down World.

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