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Mexican president can’t ignore drugs

Alejandro Escalona

Alejandro Escalona

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Updated: January 7, 2013 7:16AM

Last Sunday, the day after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn into office, drug violence took the lives of at least 19 people across our neighbor to the south. Among the victims, the mutilated bodies of six were dumped in a town in the state of Coahuila and three people were executed at a birthday party in Monterrey.

The gruesome reality of drug violence crept into the pomp and circumstance of Peña Nieto’s second day in office. A tally of victims has begun under his watch. His predecessor, Felipe Calderon, left office after six years with the horrific record of more than 80,000 dead and 25,000 missing.

Peña Nieto’s inauguration also was marred by violent protests. Hundreds of protestors, who accuse Peña Nieto and his PRI party of engaging in fraud to win the election, battled with police in riot gear across downtown Mexico City.

Not the kind of image Peña Nieto was hoping to project worldwide. He had met with President Barack Obama the week before, trying to steer the conversation away from drug violence to the rosier picture of the emerging Mexican economy.

It remains to be seen how Peña Nieto will deal with the powerful and violent drug cartels. In his inaugural speech, he said that “crime is not only fought with force,” pointing to judicial and social reforms needed to stop violent crime across the country.

That sounds good, but the problem is that the cartels have expanded their business and are also responsible now for kidnappings, robbery, extortion, prostitution and human trafficking.

Peña Nieto is signaling that his administration will not fight the drug cartels in an all-out war as his predecessor did. His strategy doesn’t seem to call for going after the capos either.

During the campaign, Peña Nieto announced plans to replace the federal police force, which has been marred by corruption and infiltrated by the cartels. Last Tuesday, he ordered the Mexican armed forces to continue patrolling the streets until further notice.

Peña Nieto is focusing on the rising Mexico’s economy — not even mentioning directly the war on drugs or the cartels once. But drug trafficking is an estimated $30 billion-a-year business that is not going away.

The cartels run sophisticated operations that extend arounds the globe, with deadly consequences on the streets of cities like Chicago. The U.S. appetite for narcotics fuels the drug trade while American guns arm the cartels.

It is in everybody’s interest to know how Peña Nieto will deal with the drug cartels.

Some fear Peña Nieto will strike a secret deal with the cartels to bring down the violence. Previous PRI governments looked the other way while enriching themselves with the drug trade.

But Sylvia Longmire, an expert on drug trafficking and a former special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, told me that such a deal might not be possible even if Peña Nieto wants it.

“Back when those deals were in effect pre-2000, the government was in charge of the criminal organizations and told them what to do if they stepped out of line. Now, the opposite is true,” said Longmire.

How Peña Nieto fights the war on drugs will have long lasting consequences for Mexico and the U.S. Looking the other way is not an option.

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