Mexico is at a crossroads. As last week’s gubernatorial elections demonstrated, the Mexican state can no longer provide basic security and ensure the rule of law in many urban environments, signaling that Mexico might soon join the ranks of international failed states like Somalia, Afghanistan, and Haiti.
The New York Times adopted an optimistic perspective, noting the strength of the Mexican democracy amidst all the violence perpetrated by the drug cartels, as evidenced by the surprisingly positive voter turnout in many areas. These elections, however, also witnessed “the most blatant evidence of traffickers interfering in politics since Calderon came to power in late 2006,” with voter turnout at historic lows. Coming close to a stand-still in areas where drug violence has been prominent—in Ciudad Juarez, voter turnout was only 20 percent, and in the state of Chihuahua as whole, only one-third of voters showed up—turnout can be explained by the violence surrounding electoral campaigns. Leading up to the elections, candidates had been killed and threatened, campaign offices had been bombed and general fear of the power of Mexico’s infamous drug cartels had uncomfortably set into everyday life in the country.
Is democracy really about having to decide between voting and dying or having to live in constant fear while trusting the government’s country-wide troop deployments to take care of the violence? The New York Times adopts a minimalist conception of democracy based simply on the act of voting. Democracy, however, should be about being able to live freely and safely within a state capable of securing the rule of law to guarantee that all citizens can enjoy their rights freely. This is nowhere close to the reality in many of Mexico’s cities. And as admirable as the courage of the few that turned out to vote is, it is nevertheless vital to emphasize that in a true democracy citizens shouldn’t have to be brave to vote.
Felipe Calderon’s ‘war on drugs’ has relied on a highly militarized approach to combating the drug cartels, an attempt that has yet to prove any progress—some 5,000 deaths so far this year have been blamed on drug-related violence. The US has been a staunch partner in this war. As the ISN’s Samuel Logan has pointed out, “the relationship between Mexico and the US is one in which the US holds Mexico by the throat over the edge of a cliff. Mexico is certainly in a bad situation, but the US will never drop its southern neighbor.”
Mexico must use its unique position to demand that the US adopt better means of lowering its own population’s high demand for drugs while also working to better secure the movement of drugs in, as well as the movement of weapons and money out of the US. This effort must, however, be carried out alongside a concerted domestic effort to shift the focus from aggressive military operations to governance reform and institution-building seeking to quell corruption, lower poverty, and professionalize local police structures.