In heated debates on immigration and the war on drugs, many Americans picture Mexico in much the same way they do old Westerns, which is not surprising given that Mexico’s legal and political foundations are derived from the same Wild West culture that shaped early American society. Today, both countries hunt outlaws in the name of justice, in the same territory they did over a century ago. Today, instead of marshals and vigilante posses, the brunt of the work is left to the FBI, the DEA, the Policía Federal, and the Mexican military. A shared affinity for borderland hang-‘em-high-type justice continues to shape internal security policies in both countries, manifest most clearly in the concept of “law-and-order style conservatism.” In Mexico, theater to a long battle with organized crime that may never truly end, the future of this genre of conservatism and justice is of crucial concern going forward.
The Mexican Context
Wherever crime is a permeating factor of everyday life and criminal organizations provide alternative systems of government, law and order conservatism launches into action. If major drug transactions are considered attacks on the basic order of shared society, Mexico towards the end of the 20th century was in an all-out war. True to their archetype, in 2006, the National Action Party (PAN) responded to the threat of organized crime, declaring a “war on drugs,” and setting the stage for a Wild Western duel. The PAN made it clear that it was well aware of the struggle to come, and was willing to mobilize the entirety of the national military and police force in a conjoined front, conducting normal and special operations to totally eliminate the cartels.
While this fits comfortably within the limits of the American political imagination, in order to understand whether this policy, still powerfully persistent at a time of national transition, applies to any sort of Mexican standard of conservatism, “Mexican conservatism” must be defined. Mexico’s only two PAN presidents, self-proclaimed right-wingers and moral conservatives, have shed much light on Mexican conservatism through their respective decisions while in office.
While in a wider Latin American context, conservatism is tied to the organization of the Catholic Church, Mexico, until the advent of the PAN, maintained a more secular tradition. Religious themes abound in President Vicente Fox’s 2007 memoir, Revolution of Hope, yet the legacy he left after ending the long-winded rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is more economic than religious. The PRI ruled in Mexico from the time of Mexican Revolution in the beginning of the 20th century until Fox’s election in 2000, which allowed it to firmly entrench itself in the Mexican political identity. Inevitably, the transition of executive power to the PAN meant big change for Mexico.
The process of decentralization and economic deregulation that began under the Fox administration, and continued under President Felipe Calderón, was a central ambition and a proclaimed success of conservatives. Fox’s election in 2000 was certainly huge in Mexico, in terms of the democratization of the country. While PAN economic policy will certainly be a topic of debate for years to come, Mexico’s economy is growing and is now becoming a major Latin American player, and when Mexicans think of conservatism in terms of its future role in preserving the strength and fiber of Mexican political authority, most will think of President Felipe Calderón.
An Evolving Policy
Of the two PAN presidents, Calderón was undoubtedly the more controversial. Even as the country moves forward, Mexicans will never forget the horror and violence of the Calderón sexenio (a word Mexicans use to describe their president’s six-year term). His declaration of war on Mexico’s culture of organized crime, met with both praise and harsh criticism, jolted the nation and completed a process of policy reversal that had begun under Fox at the end of the PRI’s near-centenarian rule. When asked about the abruptness of force characteristic of Calderón’s administration, Dr. Leonardo Vivas of the Harvard Kennedy School told the Harvard Political Review that the former president “went to war without the right tools,” referring primarily to the nationally widespread corruption of the police force and the unqualified nature of the Mexican armed forces to deal with civilian issues of justice.
Fox and Vivas both cite a peace-loving, nostalgic passivity as an integral part of Mexican society. After a century of negotiation between the PRI and various drug-trafficking organizations, Calderón’s zero-tolerance policy had inevitably stepped on the proverbial toes not only the cartels but of Mexican society in general. Of course, this culture of appeasement was precisely what Calderón was trying to confront and conquer, albeit at a heavy cost.
Despite a heavy workload, Calderón did not undertake troop mobilization without an overarching strategy. In an interview with The Economist in late November 2012, Calderón outlined the authorities’ tactic of capturing and arresting suspected individuals with the goal of infiltrating and bringing to justice the “brass” of Mexico’s most ruthless paramilitary narco-trafficking organizations. However, it was precisely this policy that targeted the executive members of the drug-trafficking organizations, says Vivas, which led to the decentralization of trafficking, increased competition over trafficking routes, and subsequent growth in violent crime.
The Return of the PRI
Although it is unclear where the newly-elected Enrique Peña-Nieto will lead his country, should he choose to take the PRI in a conservative direction, he won’t use the rhetoric of the Calderón era. Instead of flooding crime areas with personnel and getting boots on the ground by the thousands, Peña-Nieto has already begun a reform of the police system many are branding as a “professionalization.” With an influence on the professional gathering of police intelligence, it seems as though Peña-Nieto could be moving toward a more comprehensive police model reminiscent of the Federal Judicial Police of the PRI era.
Historically, the PRI has integrated leftist and conservative elements into its rhetoric and policy. Whether or not Peña-Nieto cultivates a new PRI-sponsored conservatism or takes a leaf from his PRI predecessors, he has inherited a frightful security situation that, for the immediately foreseeable future, requires a continuation of intense police mobilization on the ground. In the long term, however, he has options. The decision by Fox to endorse the PRI candidate lends Peña-Nieto a conservative ethos. Whether he uses that ethos to fix his broken law enforcement and judicial systems or lets it go to waste could determine the future of Mexican conservatism for years to come.
Currently, however, the changing political environment in Mexico almost certainly means a change in joint U.S.-Mexico security policy, says Dr. Duncan Wood of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. After a long six years of providing material and personnel support to Mexico, the U.S. is leaning towards an intelligence-based system of international cooperation. This fits comfortably within President Peña-Nieto’s sweeping security reforms, now that the president has begun his large-scale “professionalization” of the police force. For the time being, however, Mexico’s security situation mandates a continuation of Calderón’s policies by the new administration, says Wood.
Whatever Peña-Nieto’s long-term goals, the return of the PRI means a more politically unified Mexico. Going forward, President Peña-Nieto has already succeeded in enacting security measures that were met with opposition under PAN leadership. On February 19, the authorization of mando único, or unified command, was endorsed by governors throughout Mexico (most of them of PRI affiliation). This measure comes at a crucial time in the conflict, when some citizens have taken matters into their own hands by forming policías comunitarias, or community police groups, in the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero. Implemented with support of the governors, mando único may yield positive results, but the inspiration for these vigilante groups comes from a deep-seated distrust of both federal and state government that does not bode well for the PRI.
Nevertheless, the president has the support of the governors and will want to capitalize on this feeling of unity going forward, especially in calmer regions. He and his party functionaries will want to reinstitute the PRI as representative of Mexico’s most fundamental national ideals. This means embracing the morally conservative culture embedded in the mentality of Mexicans throughout the nation. The security policy of the past six years will most likely be countered by an appeal to a careful, passive conservatism. If the PRI is to have a future, it must redefine itself in terms taken from the new Mexico, by upholding basic Catholic values, banishing impunity, and restoring (then maintaining) law and order.