Michael Busch Headshot

Electoral Violence in Mexico: It's the Institutions, Stupid

Posted: Updated:
Print

Last weekend, Mexicans went to the polls nationwide to elect local and state representatives. The elections were the first to be held since December when Enrique Peña Nieto won a hotly contested presidential contest that restored power to his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- which once ruled Mexico with an authoritarian grip -- after more than a decade of conservative rule by the National Action Party (PAN). Peña Nieto vowed upon assuming office to focus government action on the reduction of crime and corruption and move away from the disastrous war on drugs prosecuted by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Last week's vote was seen by many as an early referendum on these promises. Unfortunately, the process was far from peaceful.

The period leading up to the election was marred by startling violence. In all, at least six candidates standing for local posts were assassinated while another managed to escape an
attempt on her life. Politicians weren't the only victims. The New York Times reported that "Party and campaign officials have also been assaulted, their family members targeted and sometimes killed as well." In all, the election proved to be the most violent in recent history, sparking fears that Mexico's democracy was under serious threat. As one Mexican political analyst noted, "A state that cannot protect its candidates is a state that cannot protect democracy."

The urge to use body counts as a signifier of democratic state weakness, however, should be resisted. While it may seem counterintuitive, the prevalence of violence tells us little about the institutional health of modern Mexico. Rather, it provides insight into the nature -- not strength -- of the democratic institutions that have emerged in Mexico in the years since authoritarian rule.

To be sure, using violence to make sense of where countries sit on the sliding scale of
state capacity is an attractive proposition. The provision of security is considered by liberal
theorists as a core competency of all democratic states. Similarly, international security scholars tend to see a state's ability to repel the rapacious actions of criminal nonstate actors as a central feature of a successful sovereign governance. Robert Rotberg, the godfather of state failure studies, argues that in failed states, "arms and drug trafficking become more common. Ordinary police forces become paralyzed... For protection, citizens naturally turn to warlords and other strong figures who express ethnic or clan solidarity, thus projecting strength at a time when all else, including the state itself, is crumbling."

The temptation to cast Mexico as a failing state is therefore especially acute. Since leaving authoritarianism behind in the mid-1990s, the country has struggled to maintain a peaceful social equilibrium even as macroeconomic indicators have been generally positive and elections have proved increasingly free, if still deeply flawed. In recent years, especially, Mexico has developed a reputation as one of the most criminally violent places on earth, throwing questions of democratic accountability and legitimacy, as well as the state's ability to do the basic work of governance, into stark relief. Not for nothing, Calderón's war on drugs -- which left at least 60,000 people dead and cartel power largely intact -- was rhetorically pitched as a full-court press to reestablish the state's commitment to protect its citizenry from insecurity and the predations of organized crime.

Trouble is, construction of the post-authoritarian state in Mexico has never had social security as its top priority. Capturing profit and power has been, and continues to be, the main motivation. Thus, the institutional development of democracy in Mexico has not focused on securing communities through rule of law and its monopolization of the use of force. In many instances, it has fostered -- directly and indirectly -- quite the opposite: the use of violence as a tool for mediating sociopolitical and economic relations. All of this gives life to a body politic characterized by what Enrique Desmond Arias and Daniel Goldstein helpfully label "violent pluralism," where "multiple violent actors operate within the polity and maintain different and changing connections to state institutions and political leaders." From this perch, violence cannot be seen as a threat to Mexican democracy but should instead be understood as a constituent, embedded part of it. A quick review of the country's democratization bears out the point.

Mexico's political transition from authoritarianism produced immediate consequences, some of which were quite violent, that largely defined democratic practice moving forward. One concerned relations between the state and illicit actors. For decades, the authoritarian machinery of PRI rule had effectively controlled the county's drug industry, offering organized crime protection in return for a healthy share of the profits and a guarantee that disputes between competing factions would be peacefully resolved wherever possible. The introduction of democratic competition from the PAN and other parties in Mexican politics changed all this.

As the PRI's monopoly on power broke apart, so too did its patronage networks with organized crime. Suddenly, trafficking groups were forced to compete for market share in the trade of illicit drugs. Shannon O'Neil, in her recent book Two Nations Indivisible, describes the scene well. "Now local drug traffickers had to approach each new government to establish (or reestablish) the rules of the game," writes O'Neil. "Other traffickers -- previously kept out of the process -- saw opportunity to step in and try to negotiate lucrative deals with new police and politicians." Increased competition and "uncertainty in the market meant more bloodshed," especially during periods of electoral contest and change.

At the same time that political democratization produced a violent reconfiguration of patronage networks, Mexico's economy underwent radical neoliberal reform. Liberalization demanded a reduced role for government action, the privatization of state-run industries, and the opening of the economy to increased trade with the country's neighbors to the north. Mexico's elite got rich, as well-connected businessmen were offered first dibs on state assets suddenly up for sale. In the case of the world's richest man, Carlos Slim, the government even granted the telephone tycoon temporary monopoly control over telecommunication networks, catapulting him to the top of Forbes' annual list.

For poor Mexicans, the results weren't nearly so positive. The flood of cheaper, subsidized foodstuffs from the United States forced many farmers to abandon their land -- and sometimes their families -- in search of sustainable employment. Some gravitated toward the belt of maquiladoras along the American border where violence against women skyrocketed and murder rates became some of the highest in the world. Millions of others simply left the country altogether to seek opportunity in the United States, rendering entire areas of the country without their most capable workers and greatly dependent on remittances from abroad.

These reforms, and the inequities they seemed to yield, reduced the public's confidence in government and directly increased insecurity. State retreat couldn't have been more devastating. As Ernesto López-Portillo notes in a recent essay on policing in Mexico, "in the
municipalities above all, criminals became active economic actors where the larger state was felt to have withdrawn, no longer funding this or that program, not providing infrastructure or sending resources, just not there." Spending cuts and new policies left hundreds of police officers without work and did little to support the poorly paid, under-resourced police officers who managed to keep their jobs. Laid off cops, and those looking to pad their paltry pay, became easy pickings for organized crime groups in need of foot soldiers and muscle. Unsurprisingly, crime tripled during this period.

No wonder, then, that Mexico has witnessed the rise of locally organized self-defense groups across the country. Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph Espach examine this phenomenon in the current issue of Foreign Affairs and correctly suggest that the spread of vigilantism around the country reflects the fact that "many Mexicans have lost faith in the government's willingness or ability to protect them." It is precisely for this reason that prospects for the sort of coordination and oversight of self-defense groups by the government recommended by the authors is unlikely in the immediate term. Until the legitimacy gap is bridged, local groups will, and in some cases probably should, take security into their own hands.

None of this is to suggest that violence ought to be seen as an acceptable feature of Mexico's political economy. Far from it. Increasing security for vulnerable populations should be a matter of the highest priority for policymakers and analysts alike. Unfortunately, meaningful progress on this front is unlikely as long as the conventional wisdom -- which insists on using violence as a gauge to judge state capacity -- holds sway. The result will be a predictable menu of reform proposals that accomplish little aside from strengthening and entrenching the very institutions that produce Mexico's violent sociopolitical arena. Without a change of course, the violence that played out during this electoral cycle will continue to be regular feature of the Mexican political landscape.

If serious improvements are to be realized, jettisoning the conventional wisdom and rethinking the role of violence in the country's politics will be a necessary first step. Breaking free in this way should begin to open up more flexible lines of inquiry into which institutional arrangements can meet the needs of an embattled citizenry and offer a more equitable distribution of public goods, not to mention allow for the articulation of better public policy. Doing so will not be easy. It will demand considerable creativity and tolerance for ideas that sit uneasily next to those embraced by traditional liberal theory. A less violent Mexico, though, will be more than worth the effort.