I’ve just listened to NPR’s series reporting on the drug war in Mexico and I was left completely stunned by the final part which explains how the current upsurge in violence was triggered.
It turns out that it stems from a change in government, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party or the PRI were voted out after 71 years in power.
This was significant because, according to NPR, the previous government had set up a system where the cartels paid to smuggle drugs through the country but were bound to keep violence to a minimum.
When the elections changed the government, the agreements no longer held, and the cartels were essentially ‘unregulated’.
George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary, says the PRI covertly cut deals with the criminals to allow a particular trafficker to operate in a particular part of Mexico.
“The capos would pay bribes to local, state and federal officials; in return, the government would turn a blind eye to their activities,” he says.
But Mexican drug gangs under the PRI had to follow strict rules. They were supposed to act discreetly, spurn kidnapping, avoid killing civilians and not encroach on another cartel’s turf.
“If in fact the cartels broke the rules of the game, the PRI had the capacity to come down on them like a ton of bricks,” Grayson says…
With so many people in government getting bribes, there was little incentive to crack down on the narcotics trade. The PRI’s kickback system even encouraged the cartels to expand, Poppa says.
The cartels ramped up their arms smuggling networks. They diversified into legitimate businesses to launder their profits. They recruited special forces soldiers to be their muscle.
Then the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 to Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, or PAN, and Mexico was left with a monster it couldn’t control.
The word ‘narcostate‘ tends to be thrown around rather too liberally, but assuming NPR have their story straight, the fact that the collapse of a government protection racquet can destabilise a country really speaks to the huge power of the cocaine industry.