Center for Strategic Communication

Enrique Peña Nieto. Photo: Cristhian Herrera Robledo/Flickr

At this point, there’s little doubt who is likely to win Mexico’s presidential election on Sunday. That would be Enrique Peña Nieto, who polls show leading with double-digits over his rival candidates. He’s also calling for a (subtle) shift in the fight against the cartels: don’t bother as much with stopping drugs and taking down drug lords, but focus on stopping violence and kidnapping. But as far as big changes go, don’t expect much if Peña Nieto wins, at least not soon.

First, the little things. Last week, Pieña Nieto recruited Colombian General Oscar Naranjo — a veteran of the war against the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar — as his top security adviser. Peña Nieto wants to boost Mexico’s Federal Police, and he’s for creating a new national paramilitary police force to fight the cartels.  His campaign has also been “highly solicitous” of the United States, notes Patrick Corcoran of InSight, an organized crime monitoring group. This could mean a bigger U.S. role. Naranjo is also reportedly close to U.S. officials.

This is while the cartels still exercise draconian rule over cities throughout many parts of the country, especially along the border. Ciudad Juárez, which came to define Mexico’s drug violence when viewed from outside the country, has seen a drop in murders to 2007 levels, Corcoran adds. But other cities, like Nuevo Laredo, experienced lower and lower levels of violence only for gangland killings to spark anew. The cartels have also spread to new areas.

“If you noticed, none of the presidential candidates broke openly with [outgoing President Felipe Calderón’s] strategy — the farthest they went was to criticize the level of violence,” César Martinez Espinosa, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas and a specialist in Mexican national security issues, writes in an e-mail. ”This is because they recognized that a majority of people (outside of Mexico City) approves Calderón’s fight against the cartels (some polls have tracked that), especially the participation of the military in it and because they might not have that much room to maneuver once they are in power.”

Reducing violence by legalizing drugs? Not likely in the least. A darker suggestion floated as a possibility in press reports is some kind of deal with the cartels, but Pieña Nieto has ruled out negotiating a truce.

The reason why a truce is brought up: Peña Nieto’s political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI), formerly maintained uninterrupted single-party rule for most of the 20th century. But when it lost power 12 years ago, it also lost a patronage system between regional party bosses and the cartels. This system meant drugs were allowed to flow relatively freely, provided physical disputes between the cartels didn’t get out of hand. But losing a (note: corrupt) system of checks and balances, beef between cartels escalated.

Nor is it likely that such a deal could be made today. In some states that maintained PRI rule, these networks were maintained but still failed to stop the surge in violence. Some of the state-level politicians with ties to the cartels are now being purged. In any case, the PRI will be governing a different Mexico: one in which corruption is still a major problem, but in which a single party is not able to maintain control over the entire governing apparatus. Another problem is that today’s cartels are smaller, a lot more numerous and increasingly decentralized. With so many cartels operating in Mexico today, who do you cut a deal with?

“Should he win, Peña Nieto will surely seek some cosmetic changes, and he may push the philosophy underlying Mexico’s crime strategy in a new direction. But the obstacles to a different approach are enormous; as a result, for better or worse, the shifts are likely to be marginal,” notes Corcoran.

Another option is to eliminate some local police forces and “consolidate them into stronger state forces,” says Martinez. Elsewhere, the new president will have to keep up economic growth and push reforms through the courts and a chaotic, badly-run prison system. But for the time being, and for whoever wins, the war with the cartels will continue.