Austin Bay

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.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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