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Monday, November 06, 2006

Mexico politics: Bombs rattle nerves


The explosion of three home-made bombs in Mexico City just past midnight on November 6th suggests that government opponents or some unknown group are trying to rattle nerves ahead of the December 1st handover to a new president. Security issues were already going to be a challenge for the incoming administration of President-elect Felipe Calderón, of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). But these incidents, combined with the ongoing strife in the state of Oaxaca, will ensure that security gets top priority.

There were no injuries following the bombings, which hit the headquarters of the federal electoral tribunal (Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación, know as Trife), the offices of the centre-left Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and a branch of a Canadian bank, Scotiabank. There was damage to the buildings involved.

There was some initial speculation that the incidents might be connected to the five-month-long crisis in Oaxaca, where federal police were sent in on October 28th to regain control of the state capital after a series of violent deaths. Striking teachers and a leftist umbrella group, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO), had taken over parts of the city, erecting barricades and disrupting commerce in the traditional tourist town. The police action succeeded in removing demonstrators from the city centre, but marches and protests, as well as sporadic violence, continue.

APPO leaders, however, deny any involvement in the Mexico City explosions. Rather than being related to Oaxaca, the incidents could be a product of ongoing discontent with the outcome of the hotly disputed presidential election of July 2nd. Balloting was followed by a partial vote recount and a court decision in early September by the Trife to confirm Mr Calderón’s narrow victory (by less than one percentage point) over his main rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). Supporters of Mr López Obrador protested for weeks, but these demonstrations have largely subsided. Still, some actions had been expected before or on Inauguration Day the PRD candidate’s his hard-core backers.

The bombings also come against a backdrop of increased crime and drug-related violence in the border areas and other parts of the country in recent months. Intra-gang warfare has escalated, and there have been numerous murders of police, police chiefs and prosecutors. The crime situation has been exacerbated by pervasive corruption in law-enforcement institutions. These problems have brought the issue of public order to the fore and raise serious questions about the ability of the authorities at local and federal level to cope.

What message?

Whoever was responsible for the November 6th incidents, they appear to be designed to send a message of warning to Mr Calderón that he might not have an easy time of it. The new president will have to immediately address the multiple security challenges facing him: common and drug-related crime, the showdown in Oaxaca and now the investigation into the bombings.

Mr Calderón had hoped that at least the conflict in Oaxaca would be resolved by the time he took office. Although there finally has been a wage settlement with the teachers and they have agreed to return to work, the situation has become far more radicalised in recent weeks, and is therefore unlikely to be pacified by December 1st. Protestors continue to demand the resignation of the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz of the PRI, but his refusal to step down promises that the conflict will continue.

Tall task

Confronting such security and political challenges could prove to be even more difficult for Mr Calderón than it has been for the outgoing president, Vicente Fox (also of the PAN). The latter has had some success in pushing through police-reform legislation and in breaking up some organised criminal gangs. But he has failed to reduce the overall level of violence. Officials have argued that the arrest of top criminal leaders has weakened gang structures and this has led to the new turf battles. But this has strengthened the perception that events, particularly in recent months, have spun out of the control of the authorities.

Mr Fox is also taking the heat for having sent in the police to Oaxaca, thereby militarising and expanding what had been a localised conflict. If substantially more violence or deaths result, he could see his democratic image badly tainted, and the conflict will smoulder on.

But because the roots of the crisis are largely socio-economic—Oaxaca being one of the poorest states in the country—it will fall to Mr Calderón to address the underlying problems.

Yet Mr Calderón will be starting off with a very weak electoral mandate, having been elected by only around 36% of voters. Further, he will not have a majority in Congress. He could therefore have more trouble pursuing tougher policies, or implementing additional reforms to the security and judicial systems. He will also be vulnerable to even more severe criticism than Mr Fox.

On crime, the prognosis for the next several years is not bright. We see organised crime and its influence over the political scene remaining a problem. The illegal drugs trade is a vast industry that is estimated to earn revenue in excess of that from oil, tourism and workers’ remittances combined. As in the past, drugs cartels will seek to influence politicians who threaten their interests. We expect the Calderón government to maintain the gradual approach against crime and corruption that has characterised the Fox administration. However, the ability of any government to combat the problem will be compromised by the legacy of complicity between criminal networks and political bosses at the local level.

As for the socio-economic causes of political conflict such as that of Oaxaca, we see a risk of further disturbances in other parts of Mexico if Mr Calderón does not meet his pledges to enhance social policy and tackle widespread poverty and political disenfranchisement in Mexico.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
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