The Narco-State?

On July 2, Mexico will elect a new president, and the race is expected to be one of the closest in Mexican history. One of the two leading candidates is Francisco Labastida of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). An economist by training, Labastida is a longtime party functionary who has served as the governor of the state of Sinaloa and, most recently, as the minister of gobernacion, or government, the country’s second most powerful post. The gobernacion minister is responsible, among other things, for internal security and intelligence, and Labastida—gray-haired, poker-faced, reserved in manner—seems to fit the part.

His main opponent, Vicente Fox of the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), is a swaggering former Coca-Cola executive whose cowboy boots make him look even taller than his six-feet-six-inch frame. Fox is given to brash, dramatic pronouncements that have won him much time on Mexico’s TV stations, which have traditionally favored the PRI. (The third major candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrático (PRD), lags far behind.) Fox has hammered away at what he considers the costs of seventy years of unbroken PRI rule: pervasive corruption, economic mismanagement, and connivance with the drug traffickers who move huge amounts of cocaine into the United States.

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), about 60 percent of all the cocaine consumed in the United States enters through Mexico. Mexico is also a major supplier of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine—speed. The revenues from this trade have made the big drug traffickers, the “narcos,” a powerful force in Mexico. President Ernesto Zedillo has said they are the nation’s most urgent national security concern.

To Vicente Fox, however, the Zedillo government is itself heavily implicated in the drug trade. “The narcos took over the PRI long ago,” he has said. “No president from the PRI can solve this because their governments have participated in the drug trade.” If elected, Fox says, he will “clean up the place and straighten up government.”

Labastida has angrily denied Fox’s charges, promising, if elected, to declare “all-out war” on drugs. But he has been dogged by rumors about his complicity with drug traffickers. On April 30, for instance, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article headlined “PRI CANDIDATE’S DRUG STANCE STIRS DOUBTS.” In its account of Labastida’s record as governor of Sinaloa, the Times said that, while there was “no solid evidence” that Labastida had made deals with the powerful traffickers there, interviews with “nearly two dozen” officials and analysts “suggest that Labastida was less than the heroic crusader he has portrayed in his ads.” For “American authorities,” the paper added, “Labastida’s experience is of keen interest. Would it inspire him, if elected, to go after narcotics gangs? The candidate says it would. But others believe that Labastida’s experience illustrates why it has been so difficult for the Mexican authorities to make progress against drug cartels.”

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