Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 221: June 8, 2015

Mexico: Elections Offer Mixed Bag
Central America: Scandals Could Hurt U.S. Aid Prospects 


Forty million Mexicans voted in mid-term elections Sunday, giving the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) a narrow working majority in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress of the Union). … According to partial results, the PRI won about 29 percent of the votes cast; combined with the 7 percent supporting the Green Party (PVEM), the PRI-led coalition is expected to barely hold on to a majority of Chamber seats. …  The center-right National Action Party (PAN) won 21 percent; the traditional leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) received 10.7 percent, and the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), founded by the leftist maverick Andrés Manuel López Obrador, garnered 8.5 percent. … In addition to the congressional results, voters elected 9 of 31 governors, 16 Delegates of the Federal District, and 640 state legislators. … For the first time in history, an independent candidate was elected governor; Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, known as “The Bronco,” will govern the northern state of Nuevo Leon, an industrial hub whose $81 billion economy makes it the second richest in the country. … The PRI won 4 governor races including Campeche, San Luis Potosí, Sonora, and Guerrero; the PAN won Baja California Sur and Queretaro; and the PRD won Michoacán; the election in the state of Colima remains too close to call between the PRI and the PAN. … Although election day was not marred by widespread violence as many feared, during the campaign period, eight candidates were murdered and there were 70 episodes of kidnapping, assaults, and attacks on government facilities. … In response to boycott threats by the national teachers union, the federal government deployed Federal Police, the Army and the Navy to the affected states.
  • The election results represent a mixed bag for the ruling PRI; although the PRI-led coalition will be able to manage votes on the budget and key national policies, the outcome does not give President Enrique Peña Nieto the political momentum he needs to salvage his ambitious agenda of economic and social reforms.  The grave risk to Mexico is that only a strong federal government and president has the resources to jumpstart the country’s flagging economy or to meet the threat of narcotrafficking-related violence, which has flared up dramatically in recent months.  However, the PRI may blame its losses on the plummeting approval ratings of the scandal-challenged Peña Nieto, whose power may be depleted further as PRI bosses and state governors distance themselves from the once omnipotent presidency and prepare to choose his successor in 2018.  The news for other political parties is not positive either, as the PAN continues its disorganized slide in national politics after having held the presidency from 2000-12.  The PAN’s poor performance may invite a challenge for leadership of the party, which will either produce an organization that is more competent and coherent or one that is even more divided.  In the meantime, López Obrador, the PRI’s bitterest critic, has splintered the vote on the left, which ironically secures the ruling party’s left flank for the foreseeable future.  But, MORENA’s takeover of the government of Mexico City may presage unrest in the capital city, underscoring the image of instability in the nation as a whole.  Although Rodriguez Calderón may find it difficult to govern without partisan support in the legislature of Nuevo León, his independent victory may encourage powerful industrialists to challenge the political order in the future.  The insecurity in the country, anxiety in the economy, and disarray in all of the national parties may force Mexicans to look for unconventional solutions that challenge the political order.


Central America

As the U.S. Congress considers President Obama’s proposed $1 billion assistance package to Central America, regional governments are experiencing significant corruption and security crises that threaten their ability to govern effectively. … In El Salvador, the collapse of the government’s ill-fated gang truce has led to a dramatic spike in violence. … Officials there recorded a total of 635 homicides in May, making it the deadliest month since the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. … Initially, the truce appeared to have a direct impact on violent crime in the Central American nation, significantly reducing the murder rate between 2012 and 2014. … However, the sharp increase in disappearances and the discovery of hidden mass graves with hundreds of victims of gang violence caused many in El Salvador to question the government’s wisdom for having pursued the gang truce in the first place and call for a new strategy. … Gangs have reacted to increased crackdowns by the police with violent reprisals and by releasing videos laden with threats of “war” against the government and calls for an end to anti-gang enforcement. … In Guatemala, several government corruption scandals have been revealed in recent weeks, involving the theft of hundreds of millions of dollars in government revenues by high-ranking officials. … Among those implicated are the vice president, who was forced to resign last month; president of the Guatemalan Central Bank; current and former heads of the national tax office; and other high-ranking politicians and cabinet ministers. … Guatemalans have reacted to the scandal with massive street protests calling for the resignations of President Otto Perez Molina and others. … In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández admitted that his 2013 campaign received money from businessmen connected with a recently discovered corruption scandal involving the country’s social security system. … A congressional report released on Friday claims that these individuals gave as much as $280,000 in political donations to the president’s party. … Hernández claims he was not aware of the money’s origins; however, that has likewise not stopped massive protests in the streets of Honduras calling for his resignation. 
  • There is widespread recognition in Washington of the need for increased U.S. assistance and engagement with the so-called Northern Tier countries of Central America – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – to help stabilize the drug-fueled security situations that are negatively impacting crime rates and migration flows to the United States.  However, at the same time, there is consensus that there should be no blank check to regional governments, due to concern over endemic corruption.   Indeed, without aggressively confronting pervasive corruption – beyond central government graft to criminal infiltration of local government and law enforcement units – any assistance package will have little lasting impact.  The myriad scandals confronting Northern Tier governments are an unfortunate reminder of the depths of the challenges faced. Given the current popular anger toward governments, it is also important that U.S. aid is not seen as an endorsement of the region’s leaders.  The Obama administration and its Central American partners would do well to examine establishing independent investigative organizations in each of the three countries, similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to ensure accountability, uphold the rule of law, and end impunity. The administration can also be supportive by being more active in using existing authorities to combat corruption and criminality, such as the use of Treasury Department designations and the withdrawing of U.S. visas.  Congress clearly recognizes the importance of an aid package, but the Obama administration will need to address legitimate concerns and show that it is fully committed to ensuring those concerns are addressed as a precondition for any significant aid package.  

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