Q&A: Stanford expert on Mexico's presidential election

Enrique Peña Nieto says he's going to control the country's violence more than he'll fight drug lords. That implies the cartels will be allowed to operate, says Stanford's Beatriz Magaloni.

Reuters Enrique Pena Nieto greets supporters during a campaign rally days before the July 1 election.

Enrique Peña Nieto greets supporters during a campaign rally days before the July 1 election. The largely unknown politician promises to reduce Mexico's drug-related violence.

Enrique Peña Nieto is poised to assume Mexico's presidency with a promise to curb the drug-related violence that exploded during Felipe Calderón's past six years in office. Peña Nieto's lead in Sunday's election means his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will return to power after being defeated 12 years ago in the country's first truly democratic election.

The PRI has a complicated history of corruption. But it also built a reputation for guaranteeing political stability and keeping the peace among Mexican post-revolutionary warlords during its 71 years as the country's ruling party.

Associate professor of political science Beatriz Magaloni talks about what to expect from Peña Nieto, what his policies may mean for Mexican-U.S. relations and how the new PRI government is likely to allow cartels some freedom to operate in exchange for the promise of peace.

Magaloni is the director of the Program on Poverty and Governance at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.


What do we know about Enrique Peña Nieto? Who is he?

His campaign slogan was "Because you know me." But the paradox is that nobody knows him at all. He's been the governor of Mexico State for six years, but he doesn't have a particularly good or impressive record. There hasn't been a lot of scrutiny of his performance, and people perceive him as a product of the media. He's married to a soap opera star, and he's known for his good looks – but also his shallowness. He was asked to list three books that have influenced him, and he had a lot of trouble answering the question.


Peña Nieto is the new face of an old party. What did the PRI accomplish in its 71 years of power?

Mexico had a social revolution in 1910. After the revolution there was continuous violence for almost two decades, and the PRI was created to put an end to the violence by bringing together all the post-revolutionary warlords into one single organization. The idea was they would stop killing each other and as long as they joined this organization, they would be guaranteed a piece of the pie.

The party did tame violence in Mexico, and that's a big accomplishment. The party also has a history of social reform. They organized massive land redistribution, expanded welfare benefits to workers and oversaw moderate economic growth.

But the PRI was so successful in monopolizing power that it became increasingly corrupt. In the end, the corruption wound up destroying Mexico's development. By the time of the PRI loss in 2000, we had more than 20 years of economic catastrophe. There was huge inflation, devaluation, unemployment and a lot of corruption that was exceedingly destructive.


What does corruption in Mexico look like today, and how can it be addressed?

The relationships among cartels, police and politicians are very complicated throughout the country. Mexico has 31 states and one federal district. There are more than 2,400 municipalities, each with its own police force. There are also state and federal police. There are about 15 cartels, and as many as 10 different gangs operating in many of the larger cities. So in each region, you never know who the police are really working for.

The drug trade is so profitable that there are huge incentives for vast sectors of Mexican society to participate. You have to offer people opportunities and chances to make money outside of the drug market. You have to give civil society groups the room they need to grow and influence communities. Tijuana has been successful in turning things around. There was a big push to engage entrepreneurs and make them understand it was up to them to reclaim the city. They helped support the arts and culture. And, most importantly, they gave young people opportunities.


There have been at least 50,000 drug-related killings during Calderón's term. Why has it been such a bloody six years?

This is a big debate. Some people blame Calderón's policy of attacking the cartels, which they say forced them to strike back with more force. They say that if he didn't do that, Mexico wouldn't be as violent as it is now. Implicit in that critique is that Mexico shouldn't have done anything about the drug problem. This is the argument that PRI is capitalizing on now – this notion that things were better off when we did nothing.

The other argument from Calderón and his supporters is that criminal organizations were already out of control when he took office. He said cartels were the de facto power holders in vast areas of the territory throughout Mexico, and the government had to do something about it to regain control.


How will the drug war shift?

Peña Nieto says he's going to control the violence more than fight the cartels. So that's implying that you have to let the cartels operate. Wars are ended with either a pact or a victory. There can be no victory as long as the drug market is as lucrative as it is. So you need a pact that says as long as the cartels don't kill or kidnap or do violence, they can operate. But the problem with that is they will continue to be extremely powerful and in control of state institutions. It is very hard to draw the line between that kind of pact and absolute state corruption. I fear it's hard to reach that pact without acknowledging that Mexico will never have rule of law.

It is clear that we cannot continue with the violence as it is. That's the biggest thing that needs to be addressed. People are suffering so much. Crimes are not being solved. There is no real sense of justice.


As Mexico's neighbor and the largest consumer of drugs moving out of Mexico, what role does the United States need to play in reducing the violence?

Much of the problem is about the demand for drugs in the United States. That's the source. But people aren't going to stop consuming drugs. So you need to do something about the legal nature of drugs. Making all drug use and trafficking into an illegal activity is what's fueling a lot of the violence. So if you legalize drugs – that doesn't mean you sell them as freely as you sell alcohol, but you can sell them under legal regulation – I think violence will be reduced. And if the United States doesn't become more engaged and rethink its policies, the violence is going to eventually come across its borders.

Adam Gorlick is the communications manager for the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Beatriz Magaloni, Program on Poverty and Governance: magaloni@stanford.edu

Adam Gorlick, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: agorlick@stanford.edu