The Kingpins’ Mexico

MEXICO CITY – The capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán – one of the world’s most wanted criminals – is just one victory in the long fight against Mexico’s narcotics traffickers. And it is not a decisive one. Much more is needed to change the vicious cycle of violence and corruption that undermines the rule of law in Mexico.

Chapo is the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s leading drug gang. President Enrique Peña Nieto will benefit from his arrest and probable extradition to the United States. After all, a majority of Mexicans appear to be disenchanted with his presidency. According to Reforma, the country’s most influential newspaper, Peña Nieto’s approval ratings among the country’s elite plummeted during his first year in office, from 67% to 40% (and fell from 63% to 55% among the general public).

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But Chapo’s arrest will help Peña Nieto only so much. In just 14 months, he has been able to forge a consensus to enact urgently needed but controversial reforms, overhauling the education system, for example, and opening the energy sector to foreign investment. At the same time, he is sabotaging his own agenda, owing to a contradictory governing style that is limiting his effectiveness.

To be sure, a team of professionals leads Peña Nieto’s security cabinet; but other parts of this government are affected by the habits he acquired as Governor of the State of Mexico, the most populous of Mexico’s 31 states, which surrounds Mexico City. He has appointed inept officials to reward political loyalty, has made no commitment to transparency, and has failed to combat the corruption that is devastating the country.

Michoacán – a southwestern Mexican state – is an extreme and revealing example of this. In a region of the state called Tierra Caliente (Hot Land), war is being waged by three armed groups: the government (army, navy, and federal police) and their allies, the self-defense groups, and organized crime militias that call themselves the Knights Templar.

The Knights Templar had taken over the state by making the most of its leaders’ complicity, corruption, and ineptitude. They would have continued extorting money from the population were it not for the appearance, in February 2013, of the self-defense groups, which now have the approval of a majority of the Mexican people.

For the time being, the alliance of federal forces and self-defense groups has the Knights Templar on the defensive. And if this continues, the cartel’s fragmentation may be inevitable. But its disappearance or disgregation would not mean the end of the drug trafficking; indeed, the real problem is that Peña Nieto’s government is not attacking the deep roots of Mexico’s violence.

Consider, for example, the “Templarian Princess” Melissa Plancarte, the daughter of a notorious Michoacán narcotics capo who sings “narco-corridos” praising her father’s cartel. She recorded part of a music video in the Michoacán Palace of Justice.

Peña Nieto’s government has preferred to ignore this and other signs of the power of organized crime and the subjugation of the local authorities, because Michoacán is governed by his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It is the same in Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and other states. The Mexican political class simply refuses to combat corruption and impunity.

Mexican governance is undermined not only by narco-traffickers (who have gained a stranglehold on some Mexican states), but by industrial and business cartels, as well as other entrenched interests which have impeded implementation of reforms even after they become law. The state in Mexico is ineffective, and democracy has weak foundations.

Violence is nurtured and sustained by an economic model that encourages illegality and inequality. According to official data, 60% of the working population is employed in the informal sector, while youth unemployment is exceptionally high. Organized crime depends on an abundant supply of young people who are willing to risk their lives in the hope of quick economic gain.

So the questions for Mexico are these: Will Peña Nieto go to the root causes of violence, even if they undermine his own political base? Will the current economic reforms reduce inequality, or will the prosperity of some continue to be built on the misery of others?

Although it is impossible to anticipate how Mexico’s many contemporary crises will end, we do know that in the coming years Mexico will continue to be characterized by a combination of solid macroeconomic numbers, chronic inequality, and structural violence. In this context, El Chapo’s capture is just a footnote in a much more complicated story.