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Security ‘quagmire’ for Mexican presidential candidates

Many analysts say that no matter who wins, no one should expect a retreat, that US-Mexico cooperation will continue.

Weeks after Mexican President Felipe Calderón 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. Calderón’s tough stand was sky high.

But six years later, that admiration has faded. Calderón 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 Calderón’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 Calderón’s military-led strategy has garnered in Mexico, it would seem the upcoming July 1 presidential race, in which Calderón 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.

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“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 Calderón 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 Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled the presidency for 71 years before losing to Calderón’s National Action Party (PAN) in 2000.

According to various polls, Mr. Peña 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 Calderón. 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 Calderón’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. Mr. Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost to Calderón in 2006 and has become his biggest critic, had long said he would take the military off the streets, but his campaign has lately focused more on generating opportunities for youth and building “a loving republic.”

“Lopez Obrador has mostly avoided the topic and focused on economic issues so far,” says Mr. Selee.

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Ms. Vazquez Mota, for her part, has promised to continue her party’s hard line against criminals, though making changes such as creating a drug czar. “There will be no truce, no surrender, to organized crime,” she said recently.

She has tried to paint her main challenger, Peña Nieto, as a return to an authoritarian past, especially on the organized crime front. Many accuse the PRI of making pacts with criminals over decades to keep the peace.

But Peña Nieto has been clear that his victory does not signify a return to “narco-pacts.” In fact, he has promised to bring back peace by creating a more trustworthy police apparatus and increasing the security budget.

So far, most analysts say the candidates aren’t trying anything notably different than what Calderón promised. That is because many perceive it as a political liability, and because there are no other alternatives, with a corrupt local police force and dysfunctional justice system.  “In reality, no one is offering specific criticism about what is working or what needs to be corrected,” says Erubiel Tirado, a security expert at the Iberamerican University in Mexico City.

The US says it will stay the course no matter who wins, promising to continue the era of cooperation that began under Calderón, with increased intelligence sharing and US money aiding the Mexican fight. Ms. O’Neil says the relationship will be tweaked as new personalities come into office on both sides of the border and programs are reassessed, but the climate of cooperation and investment in Mexico won’t radically be altered.

Carlos Ramirez, an economist and political analyst at Eurasia Group, says that security problems have impacted the economy, though it is hard to decipher to what extent. Several factors, most notably the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, have also affected foreign direct investment (FDI) and tourism. But FDI has increased despite drug violence: It was almost $20 billion in 2011, up from  $17.7 billion the year before.

What is clear, Mr. Ramirez says, is that “companies are not fleeing the country.” Given that new candidates are not going to radically alter the security strategy – and the likelihood that violence will continue, he anticipates the investment climate will remain steady.

Mexico the “new Colombia?”

Mexico is not the first country to have a voting populace both supportive of hardline policies but wearied by some of the consequences. In Colombia, residents were widely supportive of former president Alvaro Uribe‘s clampdown on guerrilla violence.

But when it came time for Mr. Uribe to leave office in 2010, the race was up in the air. Even as Colombians remained widely supportive of the role Uribe played in reducing kidnapping and other drug-fueled violence, they spoke of a new chapter beyond just security for Colombia.

When they actually went to the polls in the summer of 2010, however, Colombians handed Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, a clear victory: a sign of how, when push came to shove, they were reluctant to veer from the status quo, says Arlene Tickner, a political analyst at the University of the Andes in Bogota.

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“Colombians felt the [opposition candidate] would pose a danger in terms of continuation of the security policy,” Ms. Tickner says.

It ultimately sealed Uribe’s legacy, the way Calderón’s could be buoyed by a continuation of his strategy.

In Colombia today, President Santos has been hailed for putting more of a “democratic face” on the security issue. He has focused on strengthening institutions, for example, something few critics expected of him when Uribe left office.

That transformation may be harder for the next president of Mexico. He or she will inherit a nation in the throes of the problem, unlike Santos, who became president after violence had stabilized in Colombia.

But many still have hope that the evolution of the situation in Mexico can follow a similar path. Pedro Isnardo de la Cruz, a political analyst in Mexico, says the disconnect between Mexicans’ support for Calderón’s end goal and their discontent with how he has worked toward it will be for the next president to tackle.

“There is a contradiction between the courage that people see in the president … and the problem of his methodology,” he says. “This will be resolved.”