Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Mexicans Back Military Campaign Against Cartels

Opinion of U.S. Improving
Despite Doubts About Success, Human Rights Costs

Survey Report

As Felipe Calderón’s term as Mexico’s president draws to a close, Mexicans continue to strongly back his policy of deploying the military to combat the country’s powerful drug cartels. Eight-in-ten say this is the right course, a level of support that has remained remarkably constant since the Pew Global Attitudes Project first asked the question in 2009.

Support for Calderón’s strategy continues despite limited confidence that the government is winning the drug war, and widespread concerns about its costs. Just 47% believe progress is being made against drug traffickers, virtually identical to the 45% who held this opinion in 2011. Three-in-ten today say the government is actually losing ground against the cartels, while 19% see no change in the stand-off between the authorities and crime syndicates.

At the same time, the public is uneasy about the moral cost of the drug war: 74% say human rights violations by the military and police are a very big problem. But concern about rights abuses coexist with continued worries about drug-related violence and crime – both of which strong majorities describe as pressing issues in Mexico.

President Calderón himself remains popular. A 58%-majority has a favorable opinion of Mexico’s current leader. Although down from a high of 68% in 2009, this rating nonetheless puts him on par with the 56% who have a positive view of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI’s) Enrique Peña Nieto, whose ratings clearly topped those of his opponents when the poll was conducted between March 20 and April 2 of this year.

Whether Peña Nieto or any of the other presidential candidates have a solution to Mexico’s drug problems is an open question for the Mexican public. When asked which political party could do a better job of dealing with organized crime and drug traffickers, about equal numbers name Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) (28%) and Peña Nieto’s PRI (25%), while only 13% point to the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Fully 23% volunteer that none of the parties is particularly capable of dealing with this critical issue.

These are the principal findings from the latest survey in Mexico by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Conducted face-to-face with 1,200 adults from across the country, the poll also finds that most Mexicans (61%) blame both the United States and their own country for the continued drug violence within their borders. While solid majorities would welcome U.S. assistance in combating the cartels if the aid came in the form of training, equipment or intelligence support, only a third would approve deploying U.S. troops on Mexican soil.

Overall, a majority (56%) of Mexicans have a favorable opinion of the United States, with about the same number (53%) convinced that Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. have a better life. Despite this perception, most Mexicans have no interest in migrating north across the border, although the percentage who say they would move to the U.S. if they had the means and opportunity has remained fairly steady since 2009.

Army Backed in Drug War

More than five years after President Calderón first ordered troops to take part in controlling drug-related violence, the public remains firmly behind the use of military units to combat drug cartels. Fully eight-in-ten say they support the use of the Mexican army in the drug war, little changed from opinion over the past several years.

Supporters of both the PAN (88%) and the PRI (84%) strongly endorse Calderón’s use of the military. Backers of the PRD are more skeptical, yet 66% still approve of the approach.

Support for Calderón’s anti-cartel strategy is widespread even though only 47% of Mexicans believe the government is making progress against the drug traffickers. Three-in-ten actually think the authorities are losing ground, while 19% essentially see a stalemate, with neither side gaining. This assessment of the drug war is virtually identical to views expressed last year.

Perhaps not surprisingly, backers of the ruling PAN are more enthusiastic about the government’s campaign against drug traffickers: 62% of them believe the authorities are making progress, compared with just 45% of PRI and 34% of PRD supporters.

When asked who is to blame for the drug violence in their country – Mexico or the United States – a majority of Mexicans (61%) say both countries bear responsibility. About one-in-five (22%) says the U.S. is mostly to blame, while 14% point to Mexico. The number of Mexicans blaming both countries is up 10 percentage points compared with 2009, when the question was first asked.

In order to combat the drug cartels, three-quarters of Mexicans would support the U.S. training Mexican police and military personnel. About six-in-ten (61%) would also approve of the U.S. providing money and weapons to the country’s police and military. However, there is much less enthusiasm for deploying U.S. troops within Mexico’s borders. Only a third would welcome such a move, while a 59% majority would oppose it.

Overall, attitudes toward U.S. assistance in the drug war are little changed from last year, although the percentage who would back the deployment of U.S. troops has fallen slightly, from 38% in 2011 to 33% today.

Support for U.S. assistance in the drug war tends to be higher among those who see the government succeeding, rather than failing, in its fight against the cartels. For example, 85% of Mexicans who see progress in the drug war back U.S. training of police and military personnel, compared with 68% among those who think the government is losing ground or stymied. Similarly, those who see success in the drug war are more like than those who do not to approve of the U.S. providing money and weapons (71% vs. 54%). Even on the issue of deploying U.S. troops, Mexicans who see progress against the cartels are much more supportive of such a measure than those who believe the government is not succeeding in the drug war (47% vs. 22%).

Negative Ratings for Country and Economy

Mexicans remain unhappy with their country’s direction, although the national mood has improved somewhat over the past year. Currently, 63% say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in Mexico – an improvement from 2011, when 76% were dissatisfied.

Similarly, while 62% describe the country’s economy as bad, this is a slight improvement from last year’s 68%, and is significantly lower than the 75% registered in 2010.

Regardless of these negative assessments, Mexicans are generally optimistic about the future – 51% say the economy will improve over the next 12 months. About a third (32%) believe things will stay the same and just 16% think the economy will worsen. These attitudes are virtually unchanged since last year.

Across all of these measures, Mexicans with higher incomes and better education are more likely to have a positive view of current conditions and to be optimistic about the country’s economic future. For example, almost half of higher-income Mexicans (46%) say the economy is good compared with just 23% of those with lower incomes.1 Similarly, 43% of Mexicans with a post-secondary education rate the economy positively versus 25% of those with a primary education or less.

Crime and Drug Violence Top Concerns

Issues related to the ongoing drug war top the Mexican public’s list of concerns. Three-in-four say cartel-related violence is a very big problem for the country, while a roughly equal number say the same about human rights violations by the military and police. And 73% name crime as a very big problem.

Slightly smaller majorities point to corrupt political leaders, illegal drugs, and the economy as very big problems.

Roughly six-in-ten believe terrorism (62%) and pollution (58%) are very big problems, while only about half think people leaving Mexico for jobs or the poor quality of schools are top concerns.

Despite being relatively content with the overall situation in the country, Mexicans with higher incomes are more likely than others to see their country beset by problems. Specifically, wealthier Mexicans are at least 10 percentage points more likely than those with lower incomes to rate schools (+20), economic problems (+14), cartel-related violence (+10), illegal drugs (+10), human rights violations (+10) and crime (+10) as very big problems.

Given broad public concern about crime, it is perhaps unsurprising that more than half (56%) of Mexicans say they are afraid to walk alone at night within a kilometer of their home. This sentiment has increased slightly since 2007 (50%). Women (61%) are more likely to be afraid, though a sizeable percentage of men (51%) also express unease.

Calderón and Government Get Positive Marks

Felipe Calderón remains popular as he concludes his final months as president, with majorities expressing a favorable view of him personally and describing his influence on the country as positive. Ratings for the national government are also high, with roughly two-thirds (65%) saying it is having a good influence on the country’s direction.

Assessments of the national government’s impact have improved 11 percentage points since last spring, when 54% said it was having a good influence. Views of the government have particularly improved among middle-income Mexicans (+25 percentage points) and those living in the Mexico City area (+22).

Meanwhile, opinion of Calderón has slipped compared with the high marks he received in 2009. At that time, roughly two-thirds viewed him favorably (68%) compared to 58% in the latest survey, and three-quarters in 2009 thought he was having a good influence on the country compared to 57% now.

Calderón is especially trusted among people who say the Mexican government is making progress in the drug war (72% rate him a good influence) but less so among those who say the government is not making progress or losing ground (46%). Meanwhile, two-thirds of Mexicans living in the North and South regions say he is a good influence, but only about half from the Central and Mexico City areas say the same (53% and 47%, respectively).

Military, Media Viewed Favorably

In addition to the national government, the military is also seen in a favorable light, with nearly three-in-four (73%) saying it is having a good influence on the way things are going in the country. This represents a rebound from 2011, when 62% said the military was having a positive impact.

The media is also well-regarded: six-in-ten say television, radio, newspapers, and magazines are having a good influence on the country’s direction. Opinions of the media are unchanged from last year.

Views of the court system and police are not as positive. Less than half of Mexicans see the courts (44%) and the police (38%) as having a good influence on the way things are going in the country. A year ago, opinions of the courts and police were even more negative, with only about three-in-ten giving either institution a positive rating.

Views of Presidential Candidates

Of the three major presidential candidates, Mexicans are most positive about the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto. A 56%-majority has a favorable opinion of Peña Nieto, compared with 38% who see him unfavorably. The PAN’s Josefina Vazquez Mota and the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador are less popular, with only about a third expressing a favorable view of either candidate (36% and 34%, respectively). More than half express unfavorable views of López Obrador (60%) and Vazquez Mota (54%).

While Peña Nieto is broadly popular across Mexico, views of Vazquez Mota and López Obrador vary by region. Specifically, Vazquez Mota is seen more favorably in the North (47% favorable), while López Obrador has more support among Mexicans in the Mexico City region and the South (46% and 39% favorable respectively).

No Party Stands Out on Key Problems

The public is divided when asked which party could do a better job handling some of the most pressing issues facing Mexico. On unemployment, organized crime/drug traffickers, and corruption, the three main parties come out looking pretty much the same in the eyes of most Mexicans. And confidence is generally low across the board: 30% or fewer think any of the parties is better than the others on these issues.

Generally, those on the right of the ideological spectrum express greater confidence in the ability of both the PRI and PAN to deal with these major problems, while those on the left are inclined to trust the PRD.

U.S. Image Still Positive

A 56%-majority of Mexicans say they have a positive opinion of the U.S., while just 34% rate their northern neighbor unfavorably. America’s image has improved since the passage in 2010 of the highly publicized Arizona immigration law, but has yet to return to levels seen before the law’s enactment.

In 2010, the Arizona law had a measurable impact on opinion of the United States: prior to the law’s passage 62% of those interviewed expressed a favorable view of the U.S., compared with just 44% of those interviewed after the measure was enacted.

Today, younger Mexicans and those with higher education are more likely to be favorable toward the U.S. For example, 60% of 18-29 year-olds hold a positive view of the U.S., while just half of those age 50 and older say the same. Similarly, 66% of those with a post-secondary education are favorable versus just 48% of those with a primary education or less.

Better Life in the U.S.

More than half the public (53%) believe that Mexicans who move to the U.S. have a better life there. Just 14% say they have a worse life, while 28% believe life in the U.S. is neither better nor worse. Attitudes on this topic have shifted since last year, when there was a dip in the percentage who said life is better in the U.S.

Even though many believe life is better for those who emigrate to the U.S., most Mexicans (61%) say they would not move to the U.S., even if they had the means and opportunity to do so. Among the substantial minority who would move, half say they would emigrate without authorization (19% of the total population). These attitudes are unchanged since last year.

The young and highly educated are more likely to want to go to the U.S. Among 18-29 year-olds, 54% would like to move north, while just 37% of 30-49 year-olds and 25% of those age 50 and older say the same. Mexicans with a post-secondary education are 11 percentage points more likely to want to emigrate than those with the lowest level of education.

A sizeable minority of Mexicans know people who have returned to Mexico from the U.S., either for economic reasons or through deportation. Three-in-ten are personally familiar with someone who came back from the U.S. because they could not find a job. This percentage is down 10 points since 2009, during the depth of the U.S. recession. Similarly, 32% of Mexicans say they know someone who has been deported or detained by the U.S. government in the last 12 months.

  1. For income, respondents are grouped into three categories of low, middle and high. Low-income respondents are those with a reported monthly household income of 3,630 Mexican pesos or less, middle-income respondents fall between the range of 3,631 to 7,260 Mexican pesos per month, and those in the high-income category earn 7,261 Mexican pesos or more per month.
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