Mexico’s Return to “Perfect Dictatorship”

July 2, 2012


On the night of July 1, Enrique Peña Nieto shouted before cameras, “this Sunday, Mexico won!” The presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Peña used the speech to declare himself the winner, promising an “honest” and “democratic presidency.”

Peña believes he has defeated both the conservative incumbent Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), which supported technocratic reforms—such as the Free Trade Are of the Americas, the Plan Puebla-Panamá, and the actually successful Central American Free Trade Agreement—but later placed legal restrictions on the privatization of state enterprises.

Peña might also have beaten the increasingly popular promise of redistribution posed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático. The PRI is expected to return to market liberalization policies under Peña, the election’s largest spender, who has also promised “neither a pact nor a truce” in the war on crime.

As soon as legally possible, television networks’ exit polls fired their verdict—Peña by five, ten or even fifteen percent—and the electoral commission’s first count confirms him as virtual president. The PRI also took key governorships for example in the state of Yucatán, where it won by less than 400 votes.

The return of the PRI comes in the face of an escalating conflict, the violence of which is palpable even across its borders. The party has a long history corruption and violence, and the patterns of its connections to the drug trade are well documented.1 Dismissing history, Mexicans have given the party another chance.

Many still believe in the party, despite decades of growing inequality, poverty and cronyism.2 Simply put, the party crushed its opposition, maintained national unity through violence, and retained order in the streets. Understandably, some long for the days in which the government stayed out of the way of criminal organizations and these consequently stayed out of public view.3

Under the PAN-led “war on drugs,” the everyday lives of many citizens have become increasingly affected by crime—the effects of the war may seem more immediately damaging than the instability created by the PRI’s economic policy.

However, many see the escalating power of the cartels has some of its roots in PRI-led neoliberalization, as well as how the PRI handled its relationship with organized crime. In Mexico State, where Peña was governor, women are murdered at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country.4 As expected, Peña denied this repeatedly during the campaign.5

Adding to the PRI’s potential scandals, Peña allegedly drove too cozy a relationship with Mexico’s media conglomerate, Televisa, which he was been forced to address in public.6

Laura Becerril, a woman leaving the polls, commented, “I don’t even know how Peña won—everybody I know says they voted for López Obrador.”

“I have a friend who got there in the afternoon and couldn’t vote because they were out of ballots,” she tells me tepidly.

More than 1,500 citizen reports of such anomalies can be read online ( These range from delinquent proselytism to unusual conditions at polls, missing ballots in left-leaning districts, vote buying, and violence against monitors. Of 31 states and one federal district, most of the reports are from Distrito Federal (26.5 percent), followed by Peña’s Mexico State (18.9 percent).

The day after the election, La Jornada devoted its front page to a survey by academics and specialists at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México that concluded 71 percent of Mexicans believe electoral fraud to be a possibility.

They may be drawing from recent experience, such as the 1988 “system collapse” electoral fraud, or the 2006 contested presidential appointment.7 Some could even venture far more deeply into Mexico’s long history of exploitation and resistance.

Mexico’s 1821 emancipation from colonialism only shifted power to the locally established elites. The victorious criollo general Agustín de Iturbide declared himself emperor. It was subsequently ruled by various generals (40 governments in 50 years) and invaded by the U.S. In 1864, the conservative elite invited Maximilian von Habsburg to rule as emperor.

In the late 19th century, the executive power underwent several reforms that undercut the power of the Catholic Church and the military. To do this, Mexicans elected Benito Juárez, an indigenous Supreme Justice, to the presidency; however, France, England and Spain invaded, using external debt as an excuse to take ports.

After 30 years of one military dictatorship, the Porfiriato, indigenous uprisings and worker strikes became a full-blown revolution that overturned the power structure and enacted redistributive reforms; however, the “revolutionary” party used these events to consolidate. It centralized the executive power, set up unions and coopted them, habitually rigged elections, and brutally silenced seven decades of resistance and dissent.

Meanwhile, corruption and populism—evidenced in acts like the nationalization of petroleum in 1938 (to the dismay of U.S. Standard Oil)—defined the state monopoly. During the Cold War, it saw macroeconomic growth (and mounting inequality) and adopted the U.S. National Security Doctrine. Under the PRI, Mexico became the “perfect dictatorship,” in the words of the Peruvian-Spanish writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa.

In 1982, Mexico’s leaders began to restructure policy with neoliberal reforms that opened the economy to international capital. The influx of investment and commodities culminated in the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Small-scale producers declined and migration skyrocketed.

By this time, the United States had secured a national security state in Colombia.8

Although the U.S. war on drugs did not reduce demand for drugs in North America, it shifted patterns in their production, transportation and distribution. It created the rise of El Chapo Guzmán, the metaphor representing Mexico’s narco-traffickers. The notoriously violent cartel, Los Zetas, was once an elite anti-subversive branch of the Mexican military, created and trained through U.S. military assistance under National Security Doctrine.9

The party lost the presidency in 2000, creating a cloud of dust. This power vacuum was coupled with scandals and manipulations. Every form of political attacks were waged in law, media, and the streets. Mexico reached a level of instability that looked as if it could not collapse any further; however, the plausibility of extraction from the world’s 6th largest petroleum reserves would be protected by larger power structures.

In December of 2006, two weeks after taking office (winning by less than one percent of the vote), president Felipe Calderón opened a war on drug cartels. In six years, militarization has resulted in the deaths of 60,000 and the disappearance of 100,000. The state of affairs has transformed Mexico, and led to the inspiring rise of student-led movements like #YoSoy132 or the transnational network Movimiento Regeneración Nacional.

Peña has vaguely promised a change of strategy before the Mexican populace; to U.S. policymakers, he avows the continuation of the anti-cartel military combat. On Sunday night, Calderón celebrated Peña’s victory and asked the public to confront together the “many things” that are wrong with Mexico. Days ago, Calderón announced he plans to leave the country at the end of his term.


1 Alejandro Gutierrez, “Dirty money contaminates 65% of campaigns in Mexico: Buscaglia,” Proceso, June 16, 2011.

2 Thomas Palley, “Del Keynesianismo al Neoliberalismo,” UNAM Economía, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2005): pp. 138-148.

3 Charles Bowden, Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family (2004), p. 3.

4 David Deolarte, “En cinco años, 922 mujeres han sido asesinadas en el Edomex,” Proceso Reportaje Especial, February 1, 2011.

5 For the contradictions between Pena’s record and rhetoric, see “The Governor’s Miraculous Achievement,” The Economist, September 22, 2011.

6 Enrique Méndez, “Demostré que no soy el candidato de televisoras: Peña Nieto,” Mexico, D.F.: La Jornada, May 8, 2012.

7 Jesus Orozco Enriquez, “Certainties, Doubts and Lessons from Mexico’s 2006 Election: the Electoral Court and the Presidential Election Disputes and Declaration of Validity Resolutions” (The State of Mexico’s Democracy, Yale University, 2006).

8 William Aviles, “Paramilitarism and Colombia’s Low-Intensity Democracy,” Journal of Latin American Studies Vol. 38, Issue 2 (2006).

9 Sylvia Longmire, Cartel: the Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars (New York: MacMillan, 2011).

This article was published in Counterpunch on July 3, 2012 and in Socialist Worker soon thereafter.

Photo credit: Arturo García Guerrero (DF, Mex, 2012)

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