Keith Boag: Is Mexico backing off its drug war?

A new president will be elected Sunday and the three leading candidates are all being deliberately vague about the rampant cartel violence and what they would do differently, Keith Boag writes.

The presidential election is Sunday and the leading candidates are all being deliberately vague about the rampant cartel violence and what they plan to do

For four years running now, Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known as "Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman, has made Forbes magazine's list of the 70 most powerful people in the world while his countryman, Felipe Calderon, has never made the list.

Guzman is Mexico's most famous and successful drug trafficker. Calderon, of course, is merely the president of the country, the world's 13th largest economy.

Guzman sits on a personal fortune estimated at about $1 billion and enjoys folk hero status in his home state of Sinaloa, for which his cartel is named.

Calderon's status is that of an amiable loser. His approval rating remains impressively and comfortably over 50 per cent though he has utterly failed in the drug war he declared only days after he took office in 2006.

It seems Mexicans appreciate his well-meaning efforts in spite of the disappointing results.

The fact that they seem not to hold Calderon responsible for such failures speaks directly to the hopelessness of the situation and the fact, perhaps, that Mexicans never really considered success an option.

As a result, the most top-of-mind issue in the country — drug violence and the cartels-— is barely an issue at all in the presidential election campaign that reaches its culmination on Sunday.

Backing off the cartels?

Calderon is not running this time, having reached his constitutional limit.

The front-runner, PRI presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto waves to the crowds at a large rally in Mexico City in June 2012. (Henry Romero / Reuters)

His successor for the incumbent PAN party is Josefina Vazquez Mota, a conservative former minister who was hoping to be Mexico's first woman president but now looks to be paying the price for Calderon's failed war on the cartels.

Her main opponents are the leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico who orchestrated a mass protest that went on for months when he narrowly lost to Calderon in the 2006 election; and the front-runner, by almost every poll, Enrique Pena Nieto of the PRI, Mexico's once all-powerful ruling party.

All three have all agreed to do something different with the drug war if elected, but different how, they don't say.

The expectation is that no matter who has power the next administration will place less emphasis on reducing drug trafficking and more on reducing drug violence.

Pena Nieto has pretty much said this directly and what this probably means is an effort to return to the "live and let live" coexistence between the cartels and the authorities that was the tradition in Mexico for much of the last century.

Bluntly, it means that if the cartels are more discreet about killing people, the government will be more discreet about running down drug traffickers.

A different democracy

There are obvious problems with such an approach, which candidates for the top office probably ought to address.

First, this isn't the last century. Peaceful coexistence with drug cartels was possible when Mexico was a one-party state under the PRI and when rampant corruption was a fact of life.

PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota addresses a huge crowd at one of the large, colourful rallies that have dominated the presidential campaign almost all of June. (Tomas Bravo / Reuters)

Then, the illegal drug industry and the governing party had overlapping interests and the ability to keep things private. Now, Mexico is a multi-party democracy with freedom of speech and that makes covert relationships harder to sustain.

More importantly, the nature of the cartels themselves has changed. The emergence of Los Zetas in 1999 took drug violence to previously unimagined heights of depravity.

Los Zetas are true narco-terrorists who advertise their cold-bloodedness in the streets with macabre forms of torture and murder.

They've upped the ante in cruelty while expanding beyond drug trafficking into kidnapping, prostitution, extortion, gambling and murder.

It may be one thing for a government to turn a blind eye to drug dealing, another thing entirely to ignore kidnapping and murder. Those crimes are terrifyingly real threats to ordinary people.

And yet one great fear in this election campaign, especially among college-age voters, is that Mexico may be about to turn disastrously back to its past.

Students have taken to the streets in large protests against the 45-year-old PRI front-runner Pena Nieto who has come to embody, at least for them, the old-boy system and the party, PRI, that held Mexico in its grip for 71 straight years.

Fawning coverage

What has ignited these protests is a realization that the Pena Nieto campaign is already reverting to some of the tactics that characterized its behaviour in the last century.

A former state governor with matinee-idol looks, a soap-opera-star wife and a complicated personal life, Pena Nieto has been the object of adoring crowds, particularly of middle-aged women throughout the campaign.

But more recently there have been revelations that the PRI paid the country's largest mass media company, Televisa, for soft, fawning coverage of its campaign and negative stories about its opponents, which smacks of the kind of politics that Mexicans had thought was well behind them.

Nor is it forgotten that the PRI presided over the evolution of the drug cartels in the first place.

What were once unsophisticated gangs of pot growers who occasionally fired off weapons in the mountains, grew, under the PRI, into the highly organized multi-billion-dollar crime syndicates that today are considered a threat to national security.

The issues that pre-occupy voters in Mexico are, like elsewhere, largely economic.

Although the economy here is more ho-hum than desperate, there is also a sense that the PRI is a party with a lot of know-how and that Pena Nieto probably can get some things done that need doing.

Still, there is no sense that he can succeed where Calderon has failed with the drug war. Or with Forbes magazine, for that matter.

Large-scale student protests, like this one in Mexico City on June 24, 2012, decry media manipulaton and the campaign of PRI's Pena Nieto.