The following is a guest post by my colleague Kevin G. Hall in the Washington Bureau of McClatchy:
Enrique Pena Nieto isn’t a household to name to Americans, then again, Mexican leaders seldom are. But his visit to Washington on Wednesday, as the man frequently mentioned as a possible future president of Mexico, filled an auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars for a coming out party of sorts.
Pena Nieto’s governor of the populous state of Mexico, which borders the crowded federal district of Mexico City, and is home to more than 15 million Mexicans. At home he’s known as somewhat of a heartthrob, with the boyish good looks of crooner Luis Miguel and the charisma and hairstyle that remind a bit of John F. Kennedy.
But that’s not why he’s on the radar screen of official Washington. Pena Nieto is considered a front runner to secure his party’s nomination for the presidency, and his party is none other than the formerly disgraced Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The PRI dominated political life in Mexico in 70 years of one-party rule, until cowboy boot wearing Vicente Fox ended the streak in 2000. As transparency grew in Mexico, the PRI’s long suspected ties to drug trafficking cartels, or at least tolerance of them, seemed a little clearer. Several veteran PRI leaders with the drug taint still hold key party positions.
Fast forward to Wednesday and Pena Nieto’s coming out speech at the Wilson Center, attended by most prominent Mexico hands employed at Washington think tanks. Pena Nieto spent a lot of time trying to make the point that it was “unthinkable” that a president from the PRI in today’s era could return to the past.
He made little mention of the drug war, until the very end of his speech, and then he praised efforts by President Felipe Calderon to break up the violent cartels, which has resulted in plenty of citizen casualties. The governor described anti-drug efforts as being “about the survival of the state.”
Then, so quickly that many in the room missed it, Pena Nieto added that the PRI might do some things differently.
When it came to the question-and-answer session, however, that was the first question to arise. What would he do differently?
Wean the nation away from using the military to combat cartels, he answered. It was a swipe at a key strategic point of Calderon’s_ noting that the use of the military to combat cartels “is not something that can be permanent.”
Human rights groups have complained that the military has sometimes covered up abuses by its members in the combat of cartels, but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and others trust the Mexican military far more than they do the historically corrupt federal police agencies. Given their closed ranks, the Mexican armed forces are harder to corrupt at the rank and file level.
Pena Nieto said he’d push for an accelerated expansion of special police units designed to fight organized crime. He also said a weak flank in the government’s approach has been insufficient buy in from local officials.
That sounds nice, but local officials are the least protected branch of government and most vulnerable to coercion and execution. He’s unlikely to find too many volunteers to lead local efforts to stand up to well-armed cartel militias. It’s akin to digging your own grave these days.