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Wednesday, Jan 18, 2012, 12:24 pm

Mexican Presidential Candidates Debate the Drug War

By Daniel Hertz

Mexico's current president, Felipe Calderón, with leading PAN candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota.
(Photo by Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)

South Carolina isn't the only place where conservatives are busy trying to one-up each other.

While the Republican presidential candidates try to shoot down Mitt Romney before it's too late for them, their conservative counterparts in Mexico held a relatively genteel debate on Tuesday about the future of that country, including the U.S.-backed drug war that has claimed over 40,000 victims since 2006.

Three "pre-candidates," as they are called, are competing for the nomination of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), which will hold an internal election on February 5th. The general election is July 1st.

Josefina Vázquez Mota, a former Secretary of Education and the front-runner for the nomination, said she would continue to use a "firm hand" against organized crime in the style of current president Felipe Calderón, who is also a member of PAN. She has proposed life imprisonment for politicians found to be colluding with gangs, but it's unclear whether she--or either of the other two pre-candidates--would continue to use the military to police the streets of cities with high levels of organized crime, as Calderón has done.

This aggressive strategy has become increasingly unpopular in Mexico as cities that were relatively calm only a few years ago have begun to experience large-scale violence, such as the brazen arson attack that left over 50 people dead last summer at a casino in Monterrey, Mexico's richest large city. For almost a year, the poet Javier Sicilia has gained international attention for his campaign to de-escalate the drug war.

The PAN's candidates are holding firm, however, in their insistence that it continue. Vázquez Mota recently said that "there will be no. . .truce with organized crime" if she is elected. One of her rivals, Senator Santiago Creel, has proposed continuing the struggle under a centralized Anti-Organized Crime Agency. The third candidate, ex-Secretary of Housing Ernesto Cordero, said he wants to lengthen the prison sentences of people convicted of drug-related crimes.

Thanks to a much-publicized "non-aggression pact" signed before the debate, the candidates mostly refrained from criticizing each other, saving their attacks for Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the centrist Insititutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who has a double-digit lead in general election polls.

Referring to the 70-year period during which the PRI effectively ruled Mexico as a one-party state, Cordero argued the he was the candidate best situated to "prevent the return of the dinosaurs," and Vázquez Mota implored Mexicans not to "allow the the return of authoritarianism."

Since 2000, however, the PRI has participated in elections that have generally been recognized as free and fair; both of the last two presidential elections have been won by another party, the PAN. In the 2009 midterm elections, however, the PRI made sweeping gains, largely thanks to disillusionment with the PAN's drug policies.

In a speech earlier this month, Peña Nieto said that "Mexicans want changes [in security policy], different directions and peace, but above all that there be order."

The candidate most associated with opposition to the drug war, however--the leftist Democratic Revolution Party's Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who finished a close second in the 2006 presidential election--is a distant third in most of this year's polling.

Daniel Hertz is a Winter 2012 In These Times editorial intern. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from Harvard College in 2010.

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