Enrique Peña Nieto‘s victory in Mexico‘s presidential election amid a raging drug war opens a new and uncertain chapter in relations with the US. Some in Washington fear the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico until 2000, will turn the clock back to an era of cosy deals with drug cartels and fraught relations with the gringos.
The new president, as is customary, will clean house, meaning replacing security officials from the outgoing administration of Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN) which had developed unusually close ties with US in terms of sharing intelligence and military cooperation. Peña Nieto is also expected to change Mexico’s focus from combating drug trafficking to curbing violent crime, kidnapping, extortion and robbery, issues which matter more to Mexicans than the flow of cocaine, cannabis and other drugs north through a 2,000 mile border.
Michael McCaul, a Texas lawmaker who sits on the House’s Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, on Monday articulated concerns, which others in Washington murmur privately, about the new man to sit on the eagle’s throne. “While he has stated publicly he is committed to the security of his country against the drug cartels, I am hopeful that he will not return to the PRI party of the past which was corrupt and had a history of turning a blind eye to the drug cartels.”
It reflected worry that after six years of mayhem costing more than 50,000 lives – a bloodbath triggered by Calderon’s military-led campaign against cartels – Mexicans have turned to a party which bought relative peace in previous decades by letting the cartels get on with business. After all, say many Mexicans, why should they pay the price for a US drug habit?
Pena Nieto has a democratic endorsement to shift Mexico’s limited resources to combatting street crime. His shuffling of the federal police and Centre for Research and National Security, Mexico’s main intelligence agency, will also disrupt institutional ties with their US counterparts, with whom they have built up trust despite fiascos such as the The Fast and Furious gun-running sting operation.
“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,” Pamela Starr, director of the US-Mexico Network, wrote in a Foreign Affairs article. “Potentially most challenging is the PRI’s reputation for corruption and history of tolerance for politicians suspected of working with organized crime.”
Pena Nieto sought to allay concerns in his victory speech. “Let it be very clear: There will be no deal, no truce with organised crime,” he said. In June, in apparent nod to Washington, he chose as security adviser Oscar Naranjo, a Colombian police general who worked closely with US officials in Bogota. For better or worse the drug war’s main dynamics are likely to continue.
In an email interview with the Guardian, Starr added that the new president, known by his initials, will be circumscribed by a lack of majority in Mexico’s congress. “This means that passing legislation will likely take time, that EPN’s proposals will be changed/watered-down in the process, and that the implementation process will be similarly fraught with democratic detours that will inevitably complicate cross-border security cooperation.”