History books will tell you that for seven decades, from the end of the Mexican Revolution until the presidential election in 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico.
Mis-ruled, however, is really a more accurate verb. The PRI, screened by a cleverly executed political propaganda operation that combined nationalist passion, socialist rhetoric and fraudulent elections, ran an autocratic, endemically corrupt, crony-ridden government. The PRI plundered Mexico's domestic economy. Justice was available, if purchased with a bribe. PRI cronies owned the police and the judiciary.
Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, live on Mexican television in 1990, described the PRI's Mexico as "the perfect dictatorship" because "it is a camouflaged dictatorship."
1997's midterm elections cracked the dictatorship and signaled a second Mexican revolution. That year, an uneasy alliance of pro-genuine democracy National Action Party (PAN) free-marketers and Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) socialists took control of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies.
In 2000, PAN's Vicente Fox became president. Political evolution ended the dictatorship, not revolution, Mexicans said with justified pride. Felipe Calderon, another PANista, succeeded Fox in 2006.
This past Sunday, however, the PRI regained the presidency, as PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto took 38 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Pena is Hollywood handsome, and his wife is a soap opera star. With the help of largely favorable media coverage, especially from television, he leveraged just enough voter disenchantment with Calderon's war on drug cartels to defeat two weak opponents. The president-elect claims he represents the PRI's "new generation" and is committed to reform.
The PRI's legacy of corruption and violence, however, already tags Pena. It has international diplomatic as well as domestic political and economic dimensions. This week, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman deflected questions regarding the PRI victory's implications for Mexico's counter-narcotics strategy.
One could call her refusal common courtesy, except several members of Congress, allegedly reflecting the worries of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies, have publicly expressed concerns that the PRI will not fight the drug cartels but accommodate them. Over the last decade, the U.S., Canada and Mexico have increased intelligence and security cooperation, to include combatting organized crime. Terrorism is one reason, but the increasing power and violence of Mexican drug cartels is another.
Military historian A.A. Nofi, who has written on the historical impact of the Mexican Revolution, said that the concern is legitimate. "An important reason for the PRI victory was Pena's pledge to revamp the drug war," Nofi told me after the election. "But the current bloodletting is rooted in the 71 years of PRI control. The PRI mired the country in corruption. Systemic corruption helped fuel the rise of the drug cartels. If the PRI has managed to clean up its act, then progress in the drug war may be possible. If not, Mexico is in for more violence, at some point in the future."
Mexico has changed since 1994, the last year a PRI candidate won the presidency. First Fox, then Calderon raised citizens' expectations regarding what Mexico's government should do and could do.
In late 2006, when Calderon launched the Cartel War, the drug lords were operating criminal fiefdoms and infiltrating legitimate businesses and social institutions. The drug lords acted with impunity; Calderon decided to show them they were not above the law.
Those who claim that Calderon failed to make any progress ignore the scores of senior drug lords either killed or imprisoned. They also ignore Calderon's attempts to systemically reform Mexico, politically, economically and institutionally. Corruption in the security forces and judiciary, a PRI legacy, created "dirty space" for crime, from drug trafficking to embezzlement by government officials.
Calderon attacked the "dirty space," with the aim of creating a modern and just Mexican society. President Pena will have to demonstrate that a new PRI has emerged, one capable of continuing to attack and reform the corrupt system the old PRI bequeathed.