Enrique Pena Nieto, the favourite in the presidential race, promises to curb drug cartel violence. But as the death toll reaches 60,000, can any party really stop the killings?
By Harriet Alexander, Mexico City
Enrique Peña Nieto is in the midst of a bruising electoral battle. And he has the scars to prove it.
The favourite to become Mexico’s next president a week today, Mr Peña Nieto rolls up his sleeves with a wry smile to show The Sunday Telegraph the red welts on his forearms – the result of being grappled by his frenzied supporters at a rally on Wednesday in Mexico City.
The campaign has not just been physically bruising either.
Mr Peña Nieto, currently ahead of the other two candidates by a comfortable 12 points, has been accused by his critics of taking Mexico back to the dark days of the past, when his party was notorious for corruption, autocratic rule and shady deals. His main opponent is already claiming electoral fraud – a precursor to challenging the result, say his supporters.
Earlier Mr Peña Nieto, a handsome 45-year-old former governor of Mexico State with a soap opera star wife, had fought his way through screaming fans to punch the air and chant “Yes we can”, telling 15,000 flag-waving aficionados that his party would restore security to Mexico after 12 years in opposition. Why does he think Mexico appears ready for a change?
“The answer is obvious,” he told The Sunday Telegraph after the raucous rally. “Mexico is in a situation in which society is weakening. There is a lack of growth and employment for Mexican people.
“Above all there is a climate of insecurity, which evidently Mexicans just do not want.”
Indeed, exhausted by six years of bloody drugs wars, Mexico looks likely to usher in a new era of rule by his centrist Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) – the party which governed the country for 71 years until 2000. In the eyes of many, this amounts to relinquishing attempts at political pluralism in exchange for a return to stability.
Since President Felipe Calderón won office in 2006 and declared war on the drugs cartels, an estimated 60,000 people have been killed.
Mr Calderón made defeating the ultra-violent trafficking organisations the pillar of his presidency – but with the drugs trade worth an estimated $30 billion annually, it was clear from the start that the battle would be long and bloody. The carnage made cities along the main trafficking routes into the United States the most murderous in the world. Extortion, corruption and kidnapping soared – Mexico is the world’s worst country for kidnapping.
But next week’s election is about more than simply quelling the violence. Mexico has a trillion-dollar economy with more trade agreements than any other nation, and on some estimates will by 2050 have leapt from 14th to eighth largest economy in the world.
Its economy fuelled by oil, manufacturing and tourism, Mexico has a rapidly-growing middle class – and in April the Pew Research Centre discovered that, for the first time in history, the net migration of Mexicans to the USA was at zero, and may even have reversed. Tough times in the American job market coupled with a growing economy south of the border pushed many Mexicans to return home.
David Cameron, in Mexico last week after the G20 summit, praised it as “one of the fastest-growing economies in the world”.
Yet over half of Mexicans live in poverty, with dreams of prosperity still a long way off.
In 2000, after over 70 years of PRI rule, the right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN) swept into power, led by the cowboy boot-wearing former Coca Cola executive, Vicente Fox.
At first the PAN government seemed to do well; inflation fell, currency reserves grew to a record high, and Mexicans benefited from improved social security, expanded home ownership and easier consumer credit.
But under President Calderón, Mexico’s economy stalled – largely as a result of America’s financial crisis – and the drugs wars removed any remaining sheen.
By 2012, the country was exhausted by the violence and ready for a change – although with all three main presidential candidates sketchy about how exactly to end the drugs wars, quite how that change will play out is uncertain.
Robert Bonner, a former head of the US Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA), told The Sunday Telegraph: “There is a profound issue that whoever is next president of Mexico will need to face. And that is whether they continue Calderon’s policy, which is to defeat the cartels and eliminate their claws from government, or whether there is going to be a compromise with organised crime groups.
“The latter would be a disaster for Mexico.”
With Mr Calderón stepping down, Josefina Vázquez Mota, his party’s candidate to succeed him, is in a bind: she cannot jettison his policies to take on the cartels, however unpopular their consequences, and her bright blue billboards proclaim her as “Josefina: the woman who does not give in”.
Instead she emphasises the need to address the root causes of cartel violence, which she says means better education and tackling poverty. At the same time she backs business-friendly policies, promising to overhaul labour laws and reduce state regulation.
A petite and immaculately-dressed economist, Mrs Vázquez Mota, 51, is the first woman with a serious chance of winning the presidency. A devout Catholic and mother of three who was Mr Calderón’s education minister, she has made improving the lot of Mexican women a key part of her campaign – but was ridiculed for suggesting on Twitter that women stop having sex with their husbands unless they agreed to vote for her.
But her campaign has been marred by poor organisation and infighting. Mr Calderón’s support has been lukewarm – he wanted Ernesto Cordero, his finance minister, to be the candidate – while Vicente Fox, his predecessor, was labelled a traitor when he declared Enrique Peña Nieto the strongest candidate.
Currently tied in second place, alongside Mrs Vázquez Mota, is the political warhorse Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a wildly-popular former mayor of Mexico City and veteran of the last election, which he lost by a whisker to Mr Calderón.
Mr Peña Nieto’s team has unleashed a barrage of negative publicity against him, calling him Mexico’s answer to Hugo Chavez. Mr López Obrador, 58, has laughed it off but nonetheless pledges to boost the size of the welfare state, funded by cuts in government salaries and improved tax collection among the wealthy.
He promises to lower the profile of the drugs war by withdrawing soldiers from the streets in his first six months, and instead embarking on a jobs creation programme in Mexico’s most downtrodden neighbourhoods. His policy, dubbed “Hugs not bullets”, has been ridiculed by the other candidates – although he insists he will maintain “a firm hand” against the cartels.
Student supporters of Mr López Obrador claim that the media is biased in Mr Peña Nieto’s favour and is preventing open, democratic debate.
“This is the accumulation of decades of dissatisfaction,” said Emil Estuardo, 25. “Our politicians are full of empty rhetoric, and our television networks churn out one-sided rubbish.
But even without the support of the PRI juggernaut the story of Mr Peña Nieto’s rise to the top has all the right chapters.
When his first wife Monica died of an epileptic fit in 2007, aged 44, he was forced to raise their three young children alone. The story – every step of which was followed intently by the tabloid press and television networks – had its happy ending when he met and married soap opera actress Angélica Rivera. The couple, accompanied by television cameras to the Vatican, inadvertently announced their engagement while talking to Pope Benedict in December 2009 – sparking a media frenzy.
Mr Peña Nieto’s critics – of which there are legion – claim his story is a carefully-crafted, Manchurian Candidate-style scam cooked up by party titans and powerful television networks, just to get the PRI back in power.
For his followers the back story is all part of the charm.
“He is young and charismatic and keeps his promises,” said Elizabeth Lugo Miranda at the Mexico City rally, hoisting aloft a sign saying “We are all La Gaviota” – a reference to his wife’s nickname in the soap opera.
To tackle the drugs cartels, he would double the elite federal police force and send a new National Gendarmerie – drawn from the military, but under civil command – into the most stricken areas. He would use police to prevent young people being drawn into the cartels, and crack down on the kind of corruption that led to Mr Calderon’s first drugs tsar, Noe Ramirez, resigning over accusations he received $450,000 a month to inform the Sinaloa Cartel of police movements.
He has also signed up a Colombian police chief, General Oscar Naranjo, as an adviser, to cries of protest from his opponents that a foreigner should be involved. Gen Naranjo is credited with bringing about the downfall of Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar, and is an honorary member of the US Drugs Enforcement Agency.
On the economy he wants to open up the oil industry – one of the 10 largest in the world – to private investment, and to offer state pensions and free medicines to the poor.
Antonio Moran, a toothless 57-year-old shopkeeper in a Stetson, who had danced all through the rally, said: “He’s human and caring, and I just don’t believe in any of the others.”
The latest polls suggest Mr Peña Nieto’s fairytale story may have a second happy ending. The man once-dubbed “The Golden Widower” is currently on 45 per cent, with Mr López Obrador on 27 per cent and Mrs Vázquez Mota with 25 per cent.
“In this situation we have to change our path,” Mr Peña Nieto told The Sunday Telegraph.
“We need to find a new way, with clear horizons, a clear objective, so that we can have a country with better conditions for all.”