Mexico 2012 Election Results: What is at Stake for the US?

On July 1, Mexico will elect a new president. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has garnered the international spotlight with his economic savvy (Mexico’s GDP is out-pacing Brazil in growth) and his bloody struggle against criminality, and global eyes are waiting to see how the country will fare under the next administration. Though there are three distinct candidates in the forefront of the race, Enrique Peña Nieto of the infamous Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is presumed the leader by a comfortable margin. Each candidate brings a specific perspective to his or her platform and, accordingly, various promises to improve the country. All political grandstanding aside, it is important to consider what the election is unlikely to bring to the fore over the next six years.

The Rupture of U.S.-Mexico Relations

Policymakers in Washington have long-running concerns about changes in Mexican governance that would detract from U.S.-Mexico cooperation, specifically in regards to economic and security partnerships. In particular, some theorists worry that Peña Nieto’s public statements about not being “subordinate to other countries” hint at a restructuring of U.S.-Mexico collaboration. In truth, while the U.S. remains a popular rhetorical scapegoat, the complex and multi-faceted U.S.-Mexico relationship is much larger than any single candidate that Mexico City or Washington could produce. Any push to isolate Mexico from the U.S. would suffer significant blowback from the business communities on both sides of the border, clearly proponents of expanded cooperation. And given Peña Nieto’s naming of a Colombian general close to U.S. law enforcement as his security advisor, it is unlikely the presumed next president of Mexico is going to break with current regional security cooperation.

A Solution to the Current Security Crisis

U.S.-Mexico relations aside, each candidate has expressed certainty that they have the unique solution to resolve Mexico’s challenges with drug trafficking organizations. However, it is unlikely that the next president will be able to shift Mexico’s security paradigm in any significant way in a mere six years.

Calderon’s war against Mexico’s transnational criminal networks has been blamed for the deaths of an estimated 50,000 individuals during the last six years and the deployment of the military to the streets in various states. But the current security landscape is less the result of one man's actions and more the culmination of three distinct factors: years of benign neglect of corruption and impunity, an evolving and increasingly brutal criminal landscape, and the resulting clash from a newly minted effort at top-down systematic reform. As it took Colombia 25 years to make it through the worst of its domestic conflict with the cartels, Mexico is unlikely to see through in less than 12 what is still an emerging security challenge.

The Legalization of Drugs in the Americas

The security situation in Mexico has given birth to larger demands for social change in the region. In recent years certain Mexican factions (and leaders around the Americas) have become very outspoken about drug legalization. Advocates suggest that legalizing narcotics will turn drugs into taxable revenue to fund development, lend transparency and regulatory controls to a currently illicit market, and help to curb the violent bloodshed that plagues so many countries south of the U.S. border.

Regardless of growing support for narcotic legalization, it would be pointless for any country in the region to legalize unilaterally, and regional consensus likely will not be within the grasp of Mexico’s next administration.

Blanket legalization would be like trying to convince the global public health community that cigarette smoking is suddenly good for you. Partial legalization, where a less harmful substance like marijuana is permissible but a highly-addictive drug like meth is not, is a more nuanced approach but also likely to fail as it fails to end all criminal trafficking. Decriminalization versus legalization is a discussion worthy of regional time and effort but, again, not likely to see resolution in the next six years. The U.S. might be the largest roadblock on this issue but it certainly does not stand alone in its sentiments.

Moving forward, Mexico’s next administration is unlikely to diverge in practice from many of the policies set forth by President Calderon. Rhetoric and semantics will certainly try to distinguish all actions as unique, but at the end of the day, Mexico is emerging as a successful democracy, which brings bureaucracy and accountability as bedmates. Improvisation, especially with significant policy issues such as regional diplomacy and socio-economic stability, is unlikely to gain traction enough for implementation.

This piece originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project