As Mexico’s presidential elections approach, the candidates have been reticient about their security policies. Only one, the leftist Lopez Obrador, seems poised to break dramatically with President Felipe Calderon’s approach.

Now that Mexico’s ruling right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN) has chosen Josefina Vazquez Mota as its candidate for the July 1 federal election, the Mexican people can stand back and assess how her public security strategy compares to those of the other two candidates: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD); and Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Of particular interest is how any strategy will tie in with US policy, and to what extent new approaches will be informed by the aggressive tactics assumed by PAN president Felipe Calderon. We are only now entering into the heat of a six-month campaign; much can happen, and though Peña Nieto is the clear favourite at present, he has stumbled of late, and Ms. Vazquez Mota will likely get a boost from her recent win. Lopez Obrador, running third in the polls, could also see a surge if he can transfer his rural base into urban support.

Below is an assessment of the three candidates’ security platforms, and what the implications might be for the Mexican people and for Mexico-US relations.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (PRD)

Lopez Obrador has been a firm critic of the tough, militarized approach pursued by Calderon. He has promised an even application of the law, proposing improved care for victims and an emphasis on the protection of human rights. Practical suggestions include a single police command that will gradually assume security operations in areas that are now under the control of the Army and Navy, as well as a single intelligence agency tasked, in part, with tracking criminal financial networks.

The PRD leader has said that the training of this new police force will emphasize civic and moral values. Lopez Obrador has also said that he is committed to salary and benefits increases for police officers throughout the country – hardly a new suggestion in Mexican politics. All in all, he has come up with ten proposed actions, but one main theme: organized crime cannot be combated as long as, due to its absence or its own actions, the government itself is culpable in the erosion of human rights.

Lopez Obrador has also thrown down a gauntlet to the United States by claiming that as president he would firmly reject any intelligence activities by US agencies, including the introduction of arms or money. This would halt the activities of CIA operatives and agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); it would also, of course, ban the use of unmanned drones.

It would also call into question the continuance of US aid. (Since 2008 the US government has contributed $1.6 billion in law enforcement aid to the Calderon administration under the Merida Initiative). Given the US government’s botched “Fast and Furious” sting operation – in which guns were deliberately sold to drug operatives in Texas, only to see federal agents lose track of them – this may have popular appeal.

Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI)

Peña Nieto is popular and charismatic, and is seen as having been a competent governor of the state of Mexico (2005-2011). His stated aim is to strengthen the security apparatus – even if it means a complete reinvention of the present structure. Key to this would be ensuring that the Ministry of Public Security, for example, would have complete autonomy and be free of political interference.

Peña Nieto has stated that he would support a withdrawal of military forces from areas that have been hit hard by the war on drugs; however, the terms and conditions have not been spelled out in any detail. He has spoken of the need to maintain “order,” but has suggested that the hard-line approach taken by Calderon has actually destabilized the nation.

This has led his opponents to suggest that he will let the state retreat, and allow for de facto control of certain plazas by the cartels. That said, in response to accusations made by president Calderon that the PRI might negotiate with the cartels in order to keep the peace, Peña Nieto and other PRI party officials have clearly stated that they will not engage in any dialogue with criminal organizations.

Mr. Calderon, however, is not alone in his concern. American officials are believed to have stated in private that the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until losing to the PAN’s Vicente Fox in 2000, could revert to its old tactic of allowing some cartels to operate with a degree of autonomy, so long as they keep the peace. It is unlikely, perhaps even impossible, that any candidate could blatantly support this approach during the presidential campaign, but it may have some electoral appeal to a citizenry weary of the conflict.

Josefina Vazquez Mota (PAN)

Vazquez Mota has promised to continue with Calderon’s highly aggressive, militarized efforts to break the cartels. During the last six years of the Calderon administration the level of engagement with Mexican and US law enforcement has reached unprecedented levels. Under Ms. Vazquez Mota this would continue, with more US aid likely to flow beyond law enforcement and into efforts at strengthening Mexico’s justice system.

Programs that support CIA and drone activity would stay in place, and possibly even expand, though Ms. Vazquez Mota has equivocated with regard to the role of the military in civilian areas. Her “firm hand” includes a proposal for life imprisonment for any politician found to have been corrupted by organized crime.

What It Means

The unpopularity of the war on organized crime, which was initiated by Calderon and has resulted in over 47,000 deaths, will be a major liability for Vázquez Mota, who has promised “no truce” with the cartels. So far, the political benefit has fallen to Peña Nieto, who represents a fresh face and, he would argue, a reformed PRI. Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the last election against Calderon, is seen by some as a man who is too sure of himself – he staged six weeks of demonstrations after his presidential defeat which, in the end, reduced his popularity. But he has impressive name recognition, and support from a poor and rural base that, thanks to electoral reforms, now actually gets most of its votes counted.

Whatever the outcome, the United States will work with any of the three leaders. The irony is that Vazquez Mota may lose this election to Peña Nieto as a result of the unpopularity of her predecessor’s security policies, yet it is highly likely that the PRI will continue the same overall course of action. If the PRD were to win, however, we could expect a chilly reception from Washington, and real anxiety that the bilateral efforts that have been made to date would be for naught. This is not to say that Lopez Obrador would capitulate to the drug cartels, but by reducing cooperation with the US, and pulling security forces out of some areas, the result could be an effective ceding of certain plazas to organized crime.

Tim Wilson is a Canadian journalist with a special interest in Mexico and Central America. His blog can be found at La politica es la politica, and he can be followed on Twitter @TimothyEWilson.

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