Prohibition Is an Awful Flop; We Like It: The Mexican Edition


In my column today, I argue that last week's presidential election results in Mexico, where the candidate of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) finished a distant third, reflect growing disenchantment with the war on drugs. I did not have the space to discuss polling data that back up that claim, which are, I have to admit, mixed and somewhat puzzling. Last year, for instance, a Gallup poll found that Mexicans were less likely to feel safe walking alone at night than they had been in 2007, one year into Calderon's military crackdown on the drug cartels, even though they were also less likely to report gang activity or drug trafficking in their neighborhoods. The percentages expressing confidence in the national government, the military, and the police fell from 2007 to 2011, with the police seeing the biggest drop in confidence.

In the Citizenship, Democracy, and Drug-Related Violence Survey, also conducted last year, 54 percent of respondents "somewhat" or "entirely" approved of "the government's actions in fighting drug trafficking." At the same time, 53 percent said the government was not "winning the war on drugs," while an additional 18 percent said it was "neither winning nor losing," and 3 percent expressed no opinion. In other words, only a quarter of respondents thought "the government's actions in fighting drug trafficking" (of which a majority approved) were meeting with success. People living in states with higher levels of violence were more likely both to support the government's anti-drug efforts and to think they were working. That correlation is counterintuitive if you see prohibition and its enforcement as the main sources of the "drug-related" violence, which has claimed more than 50,000 lives since Calderon launched his crackdown in December 2006. But if you blame the violence on drug trafficking, overlooking the government-created environment in which it operates, you might welcome a bigger military presence and its promise of security.

Reassuringly, large majorities of respondents, no matter where they lived, rejected suggestions that "it is necessary to lose some rights and freedoms to fight drug traffic," that "government should use physical abuse to obtain information from people [suspected] of belonging to drug cartels," and that the government should "arrest people even if there is no evidence against them." But the respondents also overwhelmingly rejected the idea of electing candidates who would make peace with the cartels, with most preferring "candidates that fight drug cartels even if it generates more violence and insecurity."

That last finding makes the election of Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), even more striking, since drug warriors feared that he would revert to PRI tradition by turning a blind eye to trafficking in exchange for less violence. Then again, all three leading presidential candidates, including PAN's, promised that controlling violence, as opposed to catching traffickers or seizing drugs, would be their top law enforcement priority. All three also said they would take the army out of the fight, replacing it with specially trained police officers.

If everyone had not taken the latter position, it might be considered politically courageous, given that Mexican voters put more trust in the military than in politicians, the courts, or the notoriously corrupt and abusive police. In fact, a survey conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project a few months before the presidential election found that 80 percent of Mexicans supported "using the Mexican army to fight drug traffickers." That's not so surprising when you consider that 73 percent said the military was having a "very good" or "somewhat good" influence on "the way things are going in Mexico"; the corresponding rating was 65 percent for the national government, 60 percent for the media, 57 percent for Calderon, 44 percent for the court system, and 38 percent for the police.

While Calderon's continuing popularity could be interpreted to mean that most Mexicans do not blame him for the appalling violence that has accompanied his war against the cartels, other results from the same survey indicated that Mexicans were ready for a change, even if it meant returning to power the party that dictatorially dominated the country's politics for its first 71 years. Sixty-three percent of respondents were "dissatisfied with the way things are going," while 75 percent deemed "drug cartel-related violence in places like Ciudad Juarez" a "very big problem." Seventy-four percent said the same things about "human rights violations by the [highly trusted!] military and the police," while "crime" was rated a "very big problem" by 73 percent. None of the other issues mentioned in the survey broke 70 percent, although "corrupt political leaders" (69 percent), "illegal drugs" (68 percent), and "economic problems" (ditto) came close.

The most directly relevant part of the survey vis-à-vis the election, of course, was the section asking about respondents' opinions of the candidates. Fifty-seven percent had a "very favorable" or "somewhat favorable" opinion of Pena Nieto (who was one percentage point less popular than Calderon), compared to 36 percent for PAN nominee Josefina Vazquez Mota and 34 percent for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution. The election results were 38 percent for Pena Nieto, 32 percent for Lopez Obrador, and 25 percent for Vazquez Mota. In other words, 70 percent of voters rejected Calderon's party, even as 58 percent continued to take a favorable view of him personally. It seems to me that Calderon's bloody drug war, well-intentioned but disastrous, helps explain this apparent contradiction, given the survey respondents' strong concerns about prohibition-related violence (even if they did not identify it as such) and their overwhelming view that the current approach to drugs is not working.