Ending Narco-Politics

The Mexican Drug War is a product of the country's democratic deficit.

Soldiers from the Mexican army stand outside a home in 2011. AP

Beheadings, balaclavas, and arsenals of AK-47s — these are the ugly images that travel to the US from Mexico’s drug war. A little more than six months after the massacre in Iguala, Guerrero, for example — where forty-three students disappeared at the hands of a local drug cartel — news outlets focus almost exclusively on the CSI-like plotline: the gruesome details of the crime, the botched investigation that followed, and the crusade to end the drug violence that has seen over 120,000 killed and close to 30,000 missing in the last eight years alone.

But these stories miss the point. “Contrary to popular belief and common public narratives,” states a recent memo from the Mexican embassy in the United States, “Mexico does not have a drug trade problem. Rather, it has a public security problem that has been greatly amplified by the drug trade.” In other words, narco-politics — the term used to describe the nexus between Mexican politicians and the powerful drug lords that control them — is a symptom of Mexico’s diseased state, not the disease itself.

Diagnosing this disease helps explain not only the disappearance of the forty-three students in Iguala. It is also the key to understanding how Iguala relates to Mexico’s broken democracy, and how it can be fixed.

The DNA of the Drug Trade

The origin of Mexico’s narco-politics is the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its seventy-year reign — from the Mexican Revolution through the late 1980s.

During this period, the PRI developed a style of politics known as “corporatism,” which had two main components. First, it was centralized, so high-ranking officials could control local leaders. A large number of Mexico’s politicians, including state senators and municipal council representatives, were selected through party lists generated by the PRI’s leadership, without voters even knowing who their politicians would be.

Meanwhile, the PRI also instated a ban on reelection (ironically, to prevent the emergence of a dictatorship via electoral politics). But without the possibility of maintaining power through citizen support, politicians relied exclusively on higher-ranking officials for promotion or relocation to a different post. The result was a culture of upward accountability — pleasing the party boss — rather than a downward accountability that responded to citizen needs. Party loyalty was the highest priority.

Second, the PRI maintained a broad base, developed through a network of informal relationships with local groups around the country — unions, neighborhood associations, churches. Whenever citizen groups rose up in revolt, the party immediately moved to negotiate, offering small gifts, favors, permits, or donations in order to contain the protests.

“The Mexican political regime managed to use force selectively,” Adolfo Aguilar Zínser explains in his book Compromisos con la nación. “It achieved to suppress relatively little, and with the indiscriminate abuse of the national treasury, it achieved to corrupt a lot, to keep the power, break up their opponents, dilute disagreement and contain social demands.”

Corruption was the glue of the PRI regime. It allowed politicians to bribe away citizen demands, it allowed the PRI to win elections, and perhaps most important, it allowed the PRI to monitor the growing drug trade in Mexico. As they had with citizen groups all over the country, politicians developed informal relationships with narcotics groups, permitting the flow of drugs in exchange for some of the profits. Narcos could play their game, but they had to play by the PRI’s rules.

While allowing its entry into the country, this regulated and centralized control of the narcotics trade was stable and largely bloodless. Cartels did not attack each other, civilians were not slaughtered, and drugs were hardly sold on Mexican turf. According to George Grayson’s Mexico: Narco-violence and a Failed State, “the PRI Pope and his cardinals dictated the conduct of drug enterprises just as a church hierarchy managed corrupt dioceses and parishes throughout the nation.”

Democratization as Disaster

Cracks in the PRI’s machine began to show in the 1980s and 1990s. As the economy plunged into crisis following the Mexican government’s debt default, opposition parties emerged, and new mechanisms for citizen participation were established to promote democratic accountability.

Yet over time these participatory mechanisms began to hollow out. The new political parties — which received a large portion of their members from the PRI during its period of descent — began to play the same corporatist game as their PRI predecessors. They offered little more than cheap gifts around election time, and sought to maintain the foothold of power that they had gained since the PRI’s decline. The councils that had been established in the 1980s functioned merely to simulate participation, rarely incorporating citizen voices.

The result was the worst of both worlds — no stable centralized control and no substantive local control. As one Mexican diplomat described to me, “What we get in this process is a democracy, which should be better because it is representative, that is actually worse. Without mechanisms for accountability, what we have created is a structurally weak state.”

This political transition coincided with two ugly historical trends. The first was the decline of the Colombian drug traffickers, the predecessors of the Mexican cartels. By the 1980s, the US had teamed up with the Colombian government to clamp down on Colombian cartels and close off the Miami-based flow of cocaine into the country. Colombians, feeling the pressure, shifted their route through Mexico, pushing high volumes of drugs and money through their nascent cartels.

The second was the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. NAFTA opened Mexico’s trade borders, deregulated its crop markets, and flooded the country with American goods. Within two years, Mexican agriculture had largely collapsed, with cheap American crops displacing local farmers almost completely. The result was a vast amount of farmland available for drug cultivation, a an enormous army of unemployed labor to farm it, and an increasingly open border through which to transport its fruits.

Municipal politicians, liberated from centralized PRI control, were happy to cede territory and control to the growing cartels in exchange for a slice of the profit. Rather than wait for PRI approval, the narcos began paying off local officials in the war for market share. By the late 1990s, municipalities around the country were up for sale.


If the history of the PRI enabled the capture of the decentralized state, it allowed an even swifter capture of its security forces.

Again, a historical note is in order: the Mexican security forces — as with Mexico’s politics — were designed less to protect citizens than to protect the state. After the Revolutionary War ravaged Mexico for over a decade, the priority of the incoming PRI was simple: contain violence, prevent a revolt, suppress a coup.

In order to do so, they established a system of counterbalances between the armed forces. There was the army, recruited largely from the southern parts of Mexico; the Navy, recruited largely from the coastal regions of the country; the presidential corps, elite soldiers with elite training, installed specifically to protect the presidential regime; and the Mexico City police force, designed to prevent an invasion of the capital. These security forces operated under the centralized jurisdiction of the PRI, repressing citizen protest whenever it was necessary to protect the sovereign.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a shift in this policy as local authorities were given more control over certain security forces, such as municipal police. Like many democratic reforms of the era, police reform signaled a major victory: local security forces were now to operate under the frameworks set out by local residents. Today, Mexico has over two thousand different municipal police forces, each one regulated by local laws and local councils.

However, as with political decentralization, the decentralization of martial power only deepened the gap between citizens and their security forces. Mexico’s municipal police forces remain undertrained and underpaid. For police officers upset with meager pay, drug cartels offer an easy route to a more lucrative vocation. Today, narcos recruit actively from Mexico’s security forces. “Los Zetas wants you,” reads one sign posted on a highway in 2012. “Military, or ex-military. We offer a good salary, food, and we care for your family.”

Over the last two decades, municipal police have played a key role in opening the door for cartels to sweep into town. Every year, cartels pay over $1 billion in bribes to municipal police alone.

It is little surprise, then, that in the case of Iguala, the line appears so blurred between the federal police, the local police, and the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel itself. The state has been growing ever weaker, and the narcos have been happy to weaken it further. This is the nature of narco-politics.

Understanding Iguala

Through the lens of Mexico’s political history, Iguala is not merely an isolated tragedy, nor is it merely another instance of drug violence sweeping across the country. Instead, Iguala is connected to the much broader challenge of mending Mexico’s broken democracy.

Over the last six months, Mexico has seen one of the biggest protest movements in recent history. All over the country, protesters have poured into the streets — destroying government buildings, burning effigies of the president, and calling for the government to bring justice to its victims. Yet despite this widespread mobilization, the results have been negligible: forty-two of the forty-three students are still missing, the federal police are cracking down on any remaining protests, and the major police reform announced in December has hardly inched toward implementation.

This should not come as a surprise — and, for most Mexicans, it does not. Mexican politics typically does not trade in sweeping social movements. From the PRI’s corporatist regime, it’s been characterized largely by small gifts and gestures of appeasement. “What some observers have called ‘corruption’ or the ‘ineffectiveness’ of the Mexican state is actually an inherent part of its design,” the Wilson Center’s Andrew Selee writes.

In order to confront the narcos, Mexico must start with the state. Politicians cannot end the violence by stamping out cartels, one by one, tracking down kingpins and plastering them on the front page as victories. Instead, Mexico should follow the path set out by the parents of the missing forty-three, who have proposed the suspension of elections in Guerrero in favor of devolving power to local town councils.

If the structure of Mexico’s politics has generated Mexico’s anti-democratic disease, it is the structure itself that must change. A piecemeal politics — choosing the best of bad options at the ballot box — will never suffice. Without a radical reconsideration of the political system, the symptoms of narco-politics will return time and again, and Iguala will become yet another gruesome tale of Mexico’s drug war.