Mexico's presidential race does not disappoint. Like any good Latino novela, the campaign has a remarkable ability to weave extramarital affairs, dirty money, lies, accusations, paybacks, hitmen, and cover-ups into a national storyline that has Mexicans, diplomats, investors, the Church, and experts questioning the country´s future. Arrests, restless youth and growing social inequality are some of the major issues facing mexicanos and their presidential candidates ahead of an important election in which voters will either reward the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) for its policies since la alternancia of 2000, or reinstate the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which shaped Mexico's present-day institutions and held power for 70 years.
The most recent episode of the saga includes the arrest of former Tamaulipas Governor Tomas Yarrington in Houston for allegedly accepting and laundering millions of illicit dollars from the Gulf cartel. Prosecutors in Texas seized properties in South Padre Island and Austin, and Mexican authorities began investigating fraud claims reaching $800 million by Yarrington, his son and close associates.
In the meantime, Mexico's attorney general was also busy arresting ex-Baja California Sur Governor Narciso Montano and four retired generals (one a former Under Secretary of Defense). Montano was charged with the alleged misappropriation of $5 million during his time in office, and the generals were brought in for ties to organized crime. The arrests resuscitated questions regarding former PRI President Humberto Moreira, who along with senior officials allegedly falsified legal and financial instruments to balloon state debt from $200 million to $3 billion during his term as governor of Coahuila. To date, Moreira remains free.
University youth too have come to be a critical part of the series. This important group between the ages of 18 and 29, which carries 30 percent of the electoral roll, has decided to march, protest and heckle all presidential candidates—especially leading contender Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. Under the banner of Yo Soy 132, the movement has become the Mexican version of Spain's Indignados. They demand a fair and transparent election free from media favoritism as well as general freedom to access government information. Like other similar movements, they denounce Mexico’s poor public education system, lack of economic opportunity for youth, official corruption, and inequality.
During the month of May, #YoSoy132 led several marches across 16 cities heavily criticizing Peña Nieto. The PRI claims youth protests are a desperate attempt by the PAN and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) to chip away at the PRI’s 20-point lead in the polls. Both deny the charge and applaud an informed youth for unveiling Peña Nieto's weak record as governor of Mexico state (2005-2011), which included shifty associates, a high femicide rate and use of the public till for political advancement.
The have-nots are also on stage. According to Mexico's education ministry, the country has 7.8 million ni-nis—youth who neither study nor work—between the ages of 12 and 29, and 5 million illiterates. Those who are able to attend college are not faring well either, with 40 percent unable to find employment, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). In addition, social inequality, poverty and social exclusion have gotten worse in the past 25 years according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): Mexico has 1.5 times higher poverty and inequality rates than all OECD members; the richest 10 percent in society make 26 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Close to half the nation lives in poverty. The PRI and PRD routinely cite these statistics to point at the PAN's failed policies, but nearly everyone watching the banter on television knows and understands that Mexico remains a country where access to opportunity is limited by who you know or a powerful padrino.
Under this context, everyone understands why experienced voters tell pollsters they prefer a PRI return in July: under the old system officials stole, but never denied upward mobility.
Notwithstanding, the antagonists continue to get all the attention. Cartels continue to kill and deposit dozens of mutilated bodies on public roads. Recently, they unloaded 49 decapitated bodies in Nuevo Leon state and last week began attacks on national potato chip maker Sabritas in the states of Guanajuato and Michoacán, burning four facilities and more than 40 distribution vans. Turf battles moved to the coastal states of Guerrero, Jalisco and Veracruz where kingpins use sea routes to move cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States. And the capture of several high-ranking narcos serve as feel-good moments for the audience, but have done little to confine violence, kidnapping, extortion, and human and drug trafficking.
The plot will intensify until campaigning ends on June 27. Gossip against the PRD’s presidential contender, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is already underway for passing the hat at an informal dinner to raise $6 million for his campaign—an act altogether illegal. On July 1 voters will decide which of the leading actors they liked best and the aftermath will undoubtedly be another novela worth a close watch.
Juan Manuel Henao is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.