MEXICO CITY — As security personnel hurried presidential front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto into a black SUV after a recent meeting with the press in central Mexico City, local resident Juan Arenas casually watched from a few yards away.
“The drug trafficking will never end,” said Arenas, 37, who intends to vote for Peña Nieto in Mexico’s July 1 elections. “That’s why I want the state to enter negotiations with the cartels, so we can live our lives in peace and quiet.”
“I believe in the kind of control the PRI asserted in the old days," he said.
Arenas was referring to a time when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico — for 71 years. Mexicans like Arenas credit PRI governments for keeping drug violence at bay through more or less explicit deals with organized crime groups.
Now, after 12 years with the conservative National Action Party (PAN) in power — and with no end in sight to its drug war that has killed nearly 50,000 people — that narrative may be instrumental in handing the presidency to Enrique Peña Nieto, the PRI’s 44-year-old hotshot candidate. With the election two months away, he leads most polls by double-digits.
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But Peña Nieto, who has so far revealed little about his future security strategy, is in no position to return Mexico to its bygone days.
“[Back then] there were two cartels: one in the east and one in the west. The state was fine with that, and the US was more or less fine with that,” said Christian Ehrlich of the political and social risk consultancy Riskop in Monterrey, Mexico’s third-largest city.
That’s changed, he said. With six major transnational criminal organizations and many smaller ones operating in the country, a truce or deal is almost impossible to reach.
“Many Mexicans don’t see that. They think the structure is the same as five or six years ago, but it’s not,” Ehrlich said.
Until 2000, when Vicente Fox won the presidency for the then-opposition PAN, many experts did not consider Mexico a full-fledged democracy. Though elections were regular and presidents came and went, it was always PRI that pulled the strings — including those attached to cartels, said Edgardo Buscaglia, researcher at Columbia University and adviser on organized crime to the United Nations.
“You had a very authoritarian government. The PRI was much more than a party, it was a political and social movement, a huge pyramid of command and control where the president was on the top,” he said.
The PRI controlled organized crime groups in much the same way they did unions or business organizations.
“They were allocated markets in specific regions. There was no chance to compete or fight with each other. That’s why you saw low levels of violence,” said Buscaglia.
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As that pyramid was dismantled by political reforms since the 1990s, it didn’t take organized crime groups long to realize that no one could control them anymore.
“You cannot understand the violence of Mexico without understanding the dismantling of the authoritarian system,” said Buscaglia. “The system is gone, and it has not been replaced by other means of control.”
A reformed and modernized state is not the only reason why Mexicans’ dreams of a sudden return to the more tranquil past may be far-fetched. Drugs are now only one out of 22 illegal activities involving organized crime groups in Mexico, according to Buscaglia’s research. One such increasingly popular source of cash is oil theft. Pemex, the state-owned oil and gas company, reported 3 million barrels of oil stolen from its pipelines in 2011, accounting for a revenue loss of nearly $500 million.
Illegal activities of that scale would not have been possible had it not been for the tacit cooperation by Mexico’s political and economic elites, Buscaglia said. Dismantling the links between illicit and legal economic activities, and the bonds between organized crime and politics, is crucial in solving Mexico’s security crisis, he said.
“They must stop the flow of money into the politics and the formal economy. If you don’t dismantle the thousands of trucks and factories that, for instance, the Sinaloa cartel operates, it doesn’t help how many Chapos you kill,” he said, making reference to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the fugitive head of the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking organization, the Sinaloa cartel. But Buscaglia said he sees no will in the Mexican elites to tackle this problem.
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As of January, the government tallied 47,515 narcotics-related killings since President Felipe Calderon unleashed a military assault on drug cartels in late 2006.
But Mexico has seen a drop in murder rates over the last seven months, most notably in the northern cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez along the US border. Rather than federal security strategies finally proving successful, analysts say, this may just signal a stronger consolidation of organized crime groups in these specific areas. That does not bode well for a democratic, law-abiding Mexico. Whether it yields the peace that some, such as Juan Arenas, are nostalgic for is far from certain.
One very likely future scenario is a country controlled by two groups: the Sinaloa cartel and its extremely violent rival, Los Zetas.
“[The cartels] are likely to get more powerful over the next years, as they get a bigger grasp of the police and prosecutors,” Buscaglia predicts. “Mexico might end up as a mafia state."
On his way out from that press meeting in Mexico City, Enrique Peña Nieto offered a broad description of how he would tackle organized crime were he to become the next president.
“We have to continue building on those of the current government’s initiatives that have worked well, among them the consolidation of the federal police. But we also need new initiatives, both within intelligence and the use of force, to strengthen the capacity of the Mexican state,” he said.
That’s not exactly what Juan Arenas is hoping for. But then, his country isn’t what it used to be under the old PRI.