The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Violent crime in Mexico is at a 20-year high. This is why Mexico’s political parties don’t fix it.

Women carry a banner that reads in Spanish “#We want ourselves alive” during a demonstration to protest violence against women in Mexico City on Sept. 17, 2017. (Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press)

Mexico has been in the news lately for its devastating earthquakes — and for the number of people organizing donations and helping with rescue operations, independent of a slow-to-react government. But there’s another disaster ravaging the country: Violent crime has reached a 20-year high.

News media show videos of mutilations with electric saws and photographs of corpses hanging from bridges — human billboards sending the message that organized crime is more powerful than the government.

And recent research suggests that instead of working together to stop the violence, Mexico’s highly polarized political parties and weak political institutions may be exacerbating it for political gain.

Mexico’s polarized politics gives parties an incentive to undermine one another — sometimes by allowing violence

Although it controls the presidency, Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lacks a congressional majority and shares power with nine other parties. The PRI frames itself as centrist, putting itself in the middle of wide ideological variation between its eight counterparts and their respective policy proposals. And political scientists Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley have argued that the ideological gaps between left and right are not only causing gridlock — but also contributing to the growth of violence.

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Trejo and Ley collected data on murders attributed to drug cartels across different regions in Mexico between 1995 and 2006. They found that the rate of cartel-related murders was higher in regions where the local or regional government’s party was different from the party controlling the national government (which was the PRI until 2000; the religious-conservative National Action Party until 2012; and since then, again, the PRI). In municipalities under unified governance, where the same party was in power at both levels, violence was less common.

In simple terms, Trejo and Ley found that the weakness and polarization of Mexico’s political parties facilitates violence. That’s because parties point to rising levels of violence to shame their enemies in power for being unable to reduce it. The parties themselves don’t directly cause violence. But the fact that they are so polarized, skirmishing incessantly for power instead of cooperating for the public good, gives parties an incentive to fail to clamp down on the violence — so that they can use it to discredit opponents.

Local or regional politicians may refuse to implement laws, reinforce security or prosecute criminals, putting in question the national government’s ability to protect citizens. That way opposing parties can promise that they will do a better job.

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It’s certainly true that the violence is affecting the nation’s politics. According to Al Jazeera, “violence surrounding the multibillion-dollar drug trade has contributed to a slump in popularity of President Enrique Peña Nieto.” That may hurt the support his party (PRI) receives in the summer 2018 general elections — and the opposing parties will almost certainly exploit it.

Mexican political parties’ corruption and weakness reduces their incentives to police effectively

Mexico’s electoral system is marred by a history of corruption and weak institutions going back to the Colonial period, when rebellious Spanish governors sought to undermine the Spanish court’s legal power over them. More recently, the PRI controlled the presidency for much of the 20th century, between 1929 and 2000, during which it notoriously rigged and mishandled elections.

The two subsequent general elections in 2006 and 2012, supervised by the National Action Party, also were fraught with allegations of vote-buying and fraud. They were accompanied by protests led by the candidate who finished in second place in both elections, the center-left Andrés M. López Obrador, then affiliated with the Party of the Democratic Revolutionary.

This history has led many Mexicans to believe that the entire system is corrupt. What’s more, this perceived corruption at the federal level means no government has the legitimacy to prevent patronage in state and local governments.

A number of politicians within state and local governments are paid off by the drug cartels and work for their interests. When there’s serious political competition, the cartels may support their preferred party by violently attacking the opposition. Political scientist Andrés Villarreal has shown that there’s more violence in municipalities with more political competition, because incumbent parties have worked out arrangements to protect or ignore illicit businesses. Rival parties and candidates threaten that arrangement.

Citizens know that politicians and cartels exchange favors — and distrust the electoral system. As a result, many just don’t vote. Not only is the weakness of the electoral system enabling violence, it also is reinforcing and deepening its weakness, in a vicious circle.

What about other institutions? Can they check these destructive patterns?

In a well-functioning political system, when political parties are dysfunctional, other institutions step up to represent citizens’ interests. Sadly, Mexico still lacks the kind of independent and vigorous civil society groups that might check its violence.

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There is hope in the hundreds of collectives — student groups, religious organizations, anti-violence coalitions, alternative media outlets, feminist groups, worker and farmer unions, and indigenous liberation organizations — building a stronger civil society in Mexico from the ground up. But for now, these are mainly local and don’t have a national presence.

At the national level, Mexico’s main interest groups have included historically the Confederation of Mexican Workers, the National Confederation of Popular Organizations, and the National Farmer Confederation — but they were designed to be controlled by the PRI and depend on state financing. These groups actually represent a very narrow slice of society.

From a cost-benefit perspective, such narrow representation can promote criminal violence. When citizens feel left out and unrepresented, they turn to those who can actually improve their lives. Drug cartels have the fast cash and local power to respond to the masses in need.

Indeed, many communities see the drug lords as modern-day Robin Hoods who justify their violence as protection. Some people choose to work for drug cartels because they are disenchanted with the political system. Moreover, they have more trust in narcos who claim to fix their roads and remodel their churches than in the politicians who neglect public services. While interest groups have the potential to diminish violence by making more voices heard, Mexico’s groups have failed to do so because the largest are dependent on the state or manipulated for corrupt favor-exchanges.

Many observers have blamed Mexico’s violence on drug cartels targeting one another for territorial control — and fail to look at the problematic larger system that enables those cartels to thrive. Institutions are supposed to ensure that disputes are deliberated and resolved nonviolently. That’s not happening in Mexico today, and the result includes infamously high levels of violence. Instead of seeing violence as caused by one perpetrator, it should be treated as a consequence of institutional weaknesses.

Jennifer Bejar is an undergraduate researcher studying politics and Latin American and Latina(o) studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Michael Wilson Becerril is a 2017-2018 Peace Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a PhD candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz.