PRI’s Comeback in 2012: Not a Wave of Reforms, Nor a Pact with Cartels

As the 2012 Mexican Presidential election gets closer, it seems increasingly likely that incumbent National Action Party (PAN) will not be able to maintain its rule. Current polls suggest the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) will regain the presidency after 12 years out of power. PRI’s leading candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, has a clear advantage; according to a recent poll he is 35 points ahead of his closest competitor. A PRI victory in the 2012 elections surely will have an impact on current policies. Though the party will not be able to return to the authoritarian ways which characterized its rule prior to 2000, it is also very unlikely that PRI’s return will usher in a reformist wave. Pena Nieto’s candidacy has been formed through compromises which he will have to honor if he hopes to maintain his influence.

For instance, Pena’s has been unwilling to distance himself from PRI's national president, Humberto Moriera, and has defended Moriera against his charges of forging documents to get bank credits in Coahula while governor of that state. Although Moreira has been harshly criticized both by the media and several PRI members, he has made political compromises that he cannot easily forego. As stated in The Economist, “With a federal investigation under way into millions of dollars in unexplained debts, it is surprising that Mr. Moreira still has his job.”[1]

There is also the matter with Beltrones, chair of the Senate and the other contender for PRI’s presidential nomination. As shown by the ping-pong game between the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, controlled by Pena, neither holds the other in high esteem. However, because Beltrones still holds considerable political clout within the party, an agreement will have to be reached to smooth Pena’s official nomination. This will further constrain his actions. For instance, one of Pena's main proposals has been the privatization and opening of PEMEX to FDI, which Beltrones is completely opposed to.

Though the rising levels of violence have hurt the popularity of the incumbent PAN, most Mexicans support the presence of the military and navy in the streets. Therefore, it is not surprising that Pena has generally accepted that President Calderon did the right thing by taking a hard stance against cartels. However, he has criticized the process by which the government has addressed the problem of drug-trafficking as flawed.

Pena says more attention should be paid to intelligence, education, health and institution-building. During his visit to Georgetown University, he also noted Mexico’s lack of investment in security relative to other countries such as Colombia. Therefore, it seems that Pena would be more in favor of a “whole-of-government” approach[2] to deal with cartels and would favor an increase in investment for security. Nevertheless, he still has not come up with specific proposals on how to achieve this. This is disconcerting: there has already been the effort to apply a whole-of-government approach in Ciudad Juarez (i.e. the project “We Are All Juarez”) which has not seen the expected outcomes. Pena will be dealing not with one city, but with a whole country.

Some people, especially in the US, worry about the effects of a PRI comeback for Mexico’s security policy. This is not surprising, since the past six years have been the most fruitful with regards to security and intelligence cooperation between both countries. There will certainly be changes; as already mentioned, Pena intends to modify Calderon’s strategy, though how he will do so, remains to be seen.

Yet arguments that warn about PRI’s pact with cartels, if the party wins the 2012 elections, are too bold. Unlike the 1970s, Pena, if elected president, will not have absolute power within his party. Over the past 12 years, governors have been PRI’s center of power and its source of economic and political capital. They have behaved like feudal lords in their states, controlling political appointments and having a say in all issues. Given the level of violence in Mexico, PRI governors in the northern states will not agree to any measure which might signal the retreat of the armed forces or a pact with the cartels. Not only would this be publicly unpopular, but it has already been shown that the state police forces are not sufficiently prepared to deal with the security problem.

[1]“Left in the Lurch,” The Economist. Available at:
[2] The whole-of-government approach recognizes that to deal with insurgencies / non-state actors (such as cartels) it is not enough to develop and implement a strategy which emphasizes the role of military and security forces; along with security, the political, economic, and social spheres are interdependent. Addressing the root causes of violence is necessary to defeat these violent non-state actors. To learn more about this, see: David H. Petraeus et al., The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) Alfredo Montufar-Helu Jiménez is a second year student in the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University. He previously worked for the Embassy of Mexico in Beijing.