Enrique Peña Nieto, the newly-elected president of Mexico, takes power on Saturday and inherits a nation that is suffering from a long-running conflict against drug traffickers and an economy that is improved but still anemic. On this side of the border, Mexico watchers are hoping Peña Nieto will be the pragmatic problem solver that he promised during his presidential campaign.
Four days before he was to become Mexico’s President, Peña Nieto was at the White House sitting next to President Barack Obama, and under a clatter of camera clicks the two exchanged the traditional bi-national pleasantries.
“I’m going to establish a very strong personal as well as a professional relationship with the president-elect, who I know has an outstanding reputation for wanting to get things done,” said Obama during the Oval Office photo op.
For Peña Nieto, business is job number one
Speaking through an interpreter, Peña Nieto endorsed the push for U.S. immigration reform, but stuck to a main theme of improving business relations.
"We also share a very important vision; the vision, for instance, of creating more jobs – not only for the American people but also for the Mexican people,” the translator said.
Peña Nieto will be walking into Los Pinos – Mexico’s White House – with an ambitious agenda of business reforms, and high expectations for the former governor of the state of Mexico. He is a member of the PRI party which up until 12 years ago (for most-of-last-century) was the sole dominant ruling party of Mexico.
The telegenic Peña Nieto won the presidency with just 38 percent of the vote – and under a cloud of suspicion of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, on this side of the border there’s plenty of hope for the new man in office, particularly among the business community and specifically regarding the drug cartel violence along the border.
“The violence is a sideline item that will be taken care of and I think this particular president is serious about that,” said Nelson Balido, the president of the Border Trade Alliance.
How to end the Drug War? Is peace the answer?
Balido has been working with Peña Nieto’s presidential transition team on border trade issues. He says commerce with Mexico has been booming, but the well-publicized cartel violence has been a drag on doing business within the country.
"I’d hate to even think that he’s going to broker a peace with the drug cartels," said Balido, but there is widespread expectation that that is exactly what Peña Nieto will do.
Trying to take on the drug cartels directly was the failed strategy of outgoing president Felipe Calderón; over the last six years the war has killed over 60,000 people. Meanwhile, parts of the United States are moving forward with some forms of drug legalization, and according to Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, that’s sparking some uncomfortable conversations with Peña Nieto’s transition team.
“They’re saying, 'Hey, you know, here you are in Colorado and Washington States – you’re legalizing marijuana. In our country there are people being killed every single day, and we’re getting mixed messages from the U.S.,'" Cuellar said.
Cuellar represents the border city of Laredo and is rumored to be on the shortlist for the next U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. He said Peña Nieto is not about to wave the white flag to the drug runners, but the incoming president is focused on creating a more fruitful business climate in Mexico, and that means stopping the border bloodshed.
Richard Perez of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce is another border business booster. He claims that if Peña Nieto can reduce the drug war disruptions, then foreign investment will pour in, cross-border manufacturing will skyrocket, and Mexico can fulfill its promise to become the new China.
"The country of Mexico in general has been so beaten down by the drug violence that there’s hope that this new president will bring a fresh new direction to that battle,” said Perez.
The key word is "hope" because Pena Nieto hasn’t been forthcoming with details about his plan to deal with the drug lords other than to promise peace and talk vaguely about changing tactics.
The drug cartels are also expressing hope – there are reports of banners popping up in Mexican cities posted by the cartels that say they’re looking forward to the next president and bidding a fond farewell to the outgoing Calderón.