What Mexico's Election Means for the Drug War

Cooperation With Washington Will Get Complicated

A police officer on patrol in Guadalupe. (Courtesy Reuters)

U.S.-Mexico security cooperation has been strikingly close and effective during the tenure of Mexican President Felipe Calderón. A country that had traditionally seen the United States as the principal threat to its national security has come to accept its northern neighbor as a partner in the battle against organized crime. Mexican intelligence agencies and naval units now collaborate closely with U.S. security personnel despite the historic reluctance of Mexico’s highly nationalistic military establishment to do so. At the same time, the United States, a country that had traditionally seen Mexico as a weak and unreliable counterpart, has learned to see its southern neighbor as an increasingly trusted associate. The United States now willingly shares sensitive intelligence with Mexican officials, playing a critical role in improving the effectiveness of Mexican counternarcotics operations. Just a generation ago, this would have been unthinkable.

Yet this could change after the Mexican presidential election, set to take place on July 1. The recent era of cooperation relies on an unusual coincidence of national interests and close personal relationships, rather than on a permanent, codified set of formal agreements. Relying on personal chemistry and common interests, which are liable to be interpreted differently by different governments, makes bilateral cooperation vulnerable to the policy and personnel changes that will come with a new administration in Mexico, regardless of who wins the election. (Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has enjoyed a substantial lead in the final polls and is favored to win.) Moreover, because each of the main candidates has promised to redefine Mexican security priorities, focusing more on fighting organized crime than on cutting off the flow of drugs to the United States, the transition to a new administration will likely damage trust between the two countries, which will in turn threaten to weaken security cooperation. Policymakers on both sides of the border must prepare for this thorny transition in order to mitigate its impact on their shared struggle against organized crime.

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