Mexico enjoys a constitutional democracy modeled after that of the United States, including a president (who serves one six-year term), a two-house legislature, and a judiciary branch. For 66 years (until the year 2000), Mexico was controlled by one party, the so-called moderate Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). A few cities and states elected candidates from the main opposition parties—the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) and leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)—but the presidency and most of the important government positions were passed from one hand-picked PRI candidate to the next, amid rampant electoral fraud.
Indeed, fraud and corruption have been ugly mainstays of Mexican government for generations. In the 1988 presidential election, PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari officially garnered 51 percent of the vote, a dubious result judging from polls leading up to the election and rendered laughable after a mysterious “breakdown” in the election tallying system delayed the results for several days.
Salinas de Gortari, accused of having stolen millions of dollars from the federal government during his term, ended his term under the same heavy clouds of corruption and fraud that ushered him in. That said, Salinas pushed through changes such as increasing the number of senate seats and reorganizing the federal electoral commission that helped usher in freer and fairer elections. He also oversaw the adoption of NAFTA in 1993, which has sped up Mexico’s manufacturing industry but seriously damaged other sectors, especially small farmers, many of whom are indigenous.
The 1994 presidential election was marred by the assassination in Tijuana of the PRI candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the country’s first major political assassination since 1928. Colosio’s campaign manager, technocrat Ernesto Zedillo, was nominated to fill the candidacy and eventually elected. Zedillo continued with reforms, and in 2000, for the first time in almost seven decades, the opposition candidate officially won. PAN candidate Vicente Fox, a businessman and former Coca-Cola executive from Guanajuato, took the reigns promising continued electoral reforms, a stronger private sector, and closer relations with the United States. He knew U.S. president-elect George W. Bush personally, having worked with him on border issues during Bush’s term as governor of Texas.
Progress was being made until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, pushed Mexico far down on the U.S. administration’s priority list. With Mexico serving a term on the U.N. Security Council, Fox came under intense pressure from the United States to support an invasion of Iraq. He ultimately refused—Mexican people were overwhelmingly opposed to the idea—but it cost Fox dearly in his relationship with Bush. The reforms Fox once seemed so ideally poised to achieve were largely incomplete by the time his term ended.
The presidential elections of 2006 were bitterly contested, and created—or exposed—a deep schism in the country. The eventual winner was PAN candidate Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, a former secretary of energy under Fox. His main opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was a former mayor of Mexico City and member of the left-leaning PRD. Though fraught with accusations and low blows, the campaign also was a classic clash of ideals, with Calderón advocating increased foreign investment and free trade, and López Obrador assailing the neo-liberal model and calling for government action to reduce poverty and strengthen social services.
Both men claimed victory after election day; when Calderón was declared the winner, López Obrador alleged widespread fraud and called for a total recount; his supporters blocked major thoroughfares throughout the country for weeks. The Mexican Electoral Commission did a selective recount and affirmed a Calderón victory; the official figures set the margin at under 244,000 votes out of 41 million cast, a difference of just 0.5 percent. Calderón’s inauguration was further marred by legislators fist-fighting in the chamber, and the new president shouting his oath over jeers and general ruckus.
Calderón was confronted with a number of thorny problems upon inauguration, including a protest in Oaxaca that had turned violent, and spiraling corn prices that in turn drove up the cost of tortillas, the most basic of Mexican foods. While addressing those and other issues, he pressed forward with promised law-and-order reforms, raising police officers’ wages and dispatching the Mexican military to staunch rampant gang and drug-related crime in cities like Tijuana and Cuidad Juárez.
The effort sparked a veritable war between law-enforcement officials and the powerful drug cartels vying for shrinking territory. A staggering 5,300 people were murdered in Mexico in 2008—double the 2007 figure—most taking place in the northern border states and blamed on the drug war. The dead included a shocking number of police officers and prosecuting attorneys, as well as journalists targeted by the cartels for their coverage of the drug trade. For its part, the far eastern corner of Chiapas is a known drug-trafficking corridor—particularly as Colombian cartels look for alternatives to the now heavily patrolled Caribbean routes—but so far the state has seen very little drug-related violence, and virtually none targeted at tourists.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition