Longing For The 'Good Old Bad Days' In Chihuahua
November 29, 2012

Lorne Matalon
Bullet holes pockmark the walls of an abandoned tienda near Manuel Benavides, Chihuahua, Mexico.
MANUEL BENAVIDES, Chihuahua, Mexico -- Mexico swears in a new president on Saturday. And the hope is Enrique Peña Nieto will be able to boost the economy and stabilize security. Both might be achieved if the nation ends its war on the drug cartels. In northern Chihuahua, citizens explain their hopes for a new government and their yearning to live without terror.

The people are friendly and welcoming in the remote village of Manuel Benavides, a beautiful place near the U.S.-Mexico border but about two hours southeast of Presidio, Texas.

But everyone’s terrified. No one wants to speak. Like much of Chihuahua, like much of Mexico, the truth is elusive, opaque and silence is the best policy.

The old is becoming becomes new again. The PRI returns to power after a 12-year absence. The village of Manuel Benavides was once a warehouse for Pablo Acosta, the drug lord who ruled this part of northern Mexico with a brutally iron fist until he was killed by Mexican federales. Cartels still are the ultimate power here, their money corroding any semblance of a government by and for the people.

That said, people here do not like former President Felipe Calderon. He defended his strategy to confront the cartels with force.

Calderon’s decision will be judged by history. Against the backdrop of traumatizing violence fueled by the American appetite for drugs, people expect the PRI -- which ruled for 71 years until 2000 -- will leverage its documented connections to the cartels in the past to forge an unspoken peace deal today.

Inside a cantina, norteño music blares and people are deep in conversation. It’s a motley group; ranchers, two men who say they’ve spent time in U.S. prisons for smuggling heroin and a bilingual police officer who looks forward to the PRI’s return.

“I think they will talk to the cartels to see if they can settle this, see what happens."

"Is that a good thing?"

"Yes."

I met one man who like many here just doesn’t trust politicians. But he says when it comes to managing violence, the PRI is much better positioned than any other party.

"They’re going to control things. They have the experience," he said.

I met with Jorge Casteñeda in Mexico City. He’s a former Secretary of Foreign Relations who opposed Calderon’s decision to go to war.

“He doesn’t have a definition of victory. Is it ‘no more drugs, drugs going through somewhere else to the United States, fewer drugs, a new modus vivendi with the drug cartels. And I see no exit strategy. How do you get out of this once you’re in it?" Casteñeda asked.

An important Chihuahua politician who would only speak if I left my recording gear outside his home said, "After politics is finished, I want to be alive."

They, meaning the PRI, won’t eliminate it, the politician said, but they’ll manage it.

Howard Campbell is a Mexico security expert at the University of Texas at El Paso, the author of “Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez.”

“The PRI has proven in the past proved to be very adept at cutting deals with drug cartels and other criminal groups to have them stick to their activity but not to commit homicide in public," Campbell said. "So I think there is some hope that the violence and homicide rate in Mexico will go down.”

Today the village of Manuel Benavides yearns for the good old bad days when the PRI’s political monopoly gave them the power to divide the country into territories and make sure violence was controlled. That monopoly is dead; Mexico is now a multiparty nation.

But history speaks. And citizens seem willing to tolerate the potential for corruption if the PRI can leverage its connections to cartels.