Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Security 'Quagmire' for Mexican Presidential Candidates

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Security 'Quagmire' for Mexican Presidential Candidates

Article excerpt

Many Mexicans are weary of the sharp rise in violence that has accompanied Calderon's military-led strategy against drug traffickers. So why aren't presidential hopefuls offering alternatives?

Weeks after Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006, he declared a war on drug traffickers, dispatching troops to violent swaths of the country. When the Mexican military went on its first offensive, Operation Michoacan, in the president's home state, support for Mr. Calderon's tough stand was sky high.

But six years later, that admiration has faded. Calderon has mobilized tens of thousands of troops and caught many of the most- wanted drug lords. But drug-related deaths, which numbered 2,800 during Calderon's first year in office, climbed to 15,200 by 2010. As traffickers fight the government - and one another - violence has surged, and spread well beyond the traditional conflict areas on the US-Mexico border. Today, many groups have been weakened, but rely on methods such as kidnapping and extortion to line their pockets.

Judging from the criticism that Calderon's military-led strategy has garnered in Mexico, it would seem the upcoming July 1 presidential race, in which Calderon is constitutionally barred from running, would be dominated by proposals for new thinking on how to rein in the violence.

But, while the three main presidential contenders are capitalizing on public weariness by promising peace and creating new police forces to replace troops, they are in many ways just offering new versions of what has been attempted for the past six years. In fact, many analysts say that no matter who wins, no one should expect a retreat, that US-Mexico cooperation will continue, and that ultimately this could be a boon to Calderon's legacy. It also means that voters hoping that a swift end to the violence plaguing this country will come hand-in-hand with a new administration are out of touch with reality.

"You are not going to see a radical shift in policy," says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute in Washington. "[The candidates] will follow what Calderon started. In that sense it is a partial revindication for him."

The clear front-runner of the race has been the former Mexico State governor, Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled the presidency for 71 years before losing to Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) in 2000.

According to various polls, Mr. Pena Nieto enjoys a wide lead over of Josefina Vazquez Mota of the PAN and leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Political analysts say the PAN is behind in part because of the perception that its crime strategy has failed under Calderon. But in terms of political rhetoric, it is a complicated narrative for candidates to follow, quite simply because it's a political quagmire: Mexicans want a solution, but they also want more of the same.

Less than half of Mexico believes the government has made progress against organized crime, and a third believes it has actually lost ground, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center. And yet in the same poll, 83 percent support the use of troops in the effort, the linchpin of Calderon's strategy.

"Even if the government is losing, people want the government to take on the 'bad guys.' It is a very difficult path for all three candidates," says Shannon O'Neil, the Douglas Dillon fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Romalda Perez, a cleaner at a local cultural center in Mexico City, says she definitely wants a change in leadership. "There is too much violence," she explains. But when asked what she would like to see changed, she says she doesn't know. She is clear on one thing: the troops should stay in the fight.

The candidates are trying to navigate the contradicting sentiments expressed by voters. …

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