The PRI peril

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, editor in chief of the Mexican Law Review and a columnist for Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper. Reach him at

The Mexican version of the old Soviet Politburo is poised to make a comeback, with potentially disastrous consequences for North America. In 2000, the world hailed the end of more than 70 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, as a sign of democratic transition. Today, the PRI’s presidential candidate in the July 1 election, Enrique Pena Nieto, threatens to bring back the authoritarian ways of the past.

The PRI has not cleaned up its act or modernized over the last 12 years. To the contrary, it has deepened its networks of corruption and illegality in the territories it still controls. The 10 states where the PRI has never lost power are among the most violent, underdeveloped and corrupt in the country. In these states, democratic transition and accountability are exotic concepts and the local governors rule like despotic feudal lords.

For example, the state of Veracruz is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. Recently, four journalists were assassinated in a single week. In January, officials close to the governor were detained in an airport with a suitcase containing nearly $2 million in cash, supposedly for an advertising campaign.


The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating alleged complicity between three former governors of Tamaulipas and some of the most violent drug cartels in Mexico. The former governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira, has been embroiled in an enormous corruption scandal that left his state $3 billion in debt, allegedly involving falsified government documents and complex front corporations in Texas.

The state of Mexico, where Pena Nieto just finished a six-year stint as governor, is no exception. Homicide and poverty rates have skyrocketed and “femicides” -- targeted killing of women -- are common. A recent study by scholar Guadalupe Hernandez found that millions in government “social spending” went unaccounted for while Pena Nieto was governor, most likely to illegally fund his presidential campaign. Independent civil society groups rank the state at the bottom in competitiveness and tops in corruption.

Pena Nieto is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He hides behind a telegenic smile and sharp attire, but he represents Mexico’s old corrupt political class. Last week, for example, a high-ranking general apparently close to Pena Nieto and his group of politicians from Mexico state was arrested on organized-crime charges.

During his governorship, Pena Nieto allegedly spent tens of millions in public funds to illegally boost his image on national television. But he has few ideas of his own and questionable moral character. He fathered a son in an extramarital affair and has come under fire from the boy’s mother for being an irresponsible parent.

When Pena Nieto was asked at a book fair to name three books he had read, he could only mention that he had gone over “parts” of the Bible. The late Carlos Fuentes, who died May 15, said that Pena Nieto’s “ignorance” cast serious doubts on his ability to be a good president. No intellectual or independent journalist is willing to publicly endorse Pena Nieto’s candidacy.

Pena Nieto would not stand a chance under typical democratic conditions in which candidates are forced to engage with citizens and frequently debate their adversaries. But in Mexico the powers that be have been working hard to protect him. For instance, not a single television station or major university has sponsored a debate between the candidates.


Those who support Pena Nieto behind the scenes do so not because they think he would be a good president but because the return of the PRI is seen to be their best insurance policy. “Who’s going to move the people with the money?... Pena Nieto is,” boasted a prominent Mexican businessman close to the PRI.

But Mexico doesn’t need more privileges for the rich and powerful. It needs greater opportunities for the common people, who have seen their wages stagnate over the last three decades. Mexico is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. It is home to both the wealthiest man in the world, Carlos Slim, and the most powerful narco-trafficker in the hemisphere, Joaquin Guzman. Only 10 families control 10% of Mexico’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile, more than 50 million people languish under the poverty line.

If the next president does not attack inequality and stimulate economic growth, the violence and discontent will only deepen. This could lead to expanding social protest and political instability as well as significant new outflows of migration to the United States.

There is some evidence that Mexicans may be opening their eyes. Pena Nieto has fallen from first to third place among college-educated voters. His support in northern Mexico, normally a PRI stronghold, and among independents is also in free fall. Earlier this month, students booed and literally ran Pena Nieto off campus after his speech at one of Mexico City’s elite private schools. This weekend, tens of thousands of students took to the streets to protest against a possible return of the PRI on July 1. “It would be like a horror movie,” said one of the marchers.

The upcoming elections, which include the Senate and the federal Chamber of Deputies and six governorships, are very much up in the air. There is still an opportunity for Mexico to move forward instead of backward in its struggle to consolidate democracy, institutionalize accountability and expand economic opportunity.