With a mix of trepidation and optimism, Texas lawmakers are closely watching Mexico’s election on Sunday. The expected outcome would return the Institutional Revolutionary Party to power.
Polls show that Enrique Peña Nieto, a PRI member and former governor of the state of Mexico, is in line to become the country’s next president. That would swing power back to the center-left party after 12 years of rule by the more moderate National Action Party, whose legacy has been stained by six years of grueling war against drug traffickers.
But Texas lawmakers are concerned that the PRI would revive its tainted past, which included reports of corruption and deal-making with criminal elements.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who has met several times with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, said he was skeptical about how the country’s next leader will move forward.
“In the backdrop of all this is the PRI itself and their history,” McCaul said. “Traditionally, the PRI has been the party that has played nice with the cartels.”
In an overview of the race, Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said that the question on most people’s minds was whether a victory by Peña Nieto could overcome his party’s tainted legacy and “usher in a new era with a reformed PRI capable of tackling the issues of corruption and inefficient government, security and violence, and economic under-performance that have vexed other parties as well.”
The other candidates include Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party; Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist progressive alliance, which includes the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Labor Party; and Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance Party.
The government’s war on traffickers has resulted in more than 55,000 deaths. It has also prompted Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Texas to call Calderón a hero for his efforts to reduce violence in the country.
But McCaul, a member of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said he was fearful that strategy would change in December, when Peña Nieto, if elected, would be sworn in. McCaul pointed to the PRI not following Calderón’s strategy, which has included transitioning to a larger federal police force and staging large-scale military deployments in crime-afflicted areas like Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, and Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo. The Texas cities are Mexico’s No. 1 and No. 2 trade destinations, respectively.
“You either take the cartels on and you have violence, or you don’t,” said McCaul, the author of legislation that would place major Mexican drug cartels on the United States government’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. “If you play nice and play in the same sandbox with them and kind of look the other way, like what Pakistan does with the Haqqani network, that enables them to flourish.”
Other Texas lawmakers are more reserved in their assessments. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, called Peña Nieto a friend. But Cuellar, who will be with Peña Nieto on election night, said business does not take a back seat to niceties.
“We have established a good working relationship and a personal friendship, but that doesn’t mean that we are not going to be asking the tough questions like we did when he came down” to Washington, said Cuellar, the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.
That said, Cuellar is staying out of the race and is not actively endorsing a candidate, he said, adding, “That’s up to the people of Mexico to select their own leaders.”
Cuellar said his focus — no matter who wins the Mexican presidency — was to ensure that Mexico’s trade with the United States continued and that Congress remained committed to, delivering on its obligation to Mexico under the Mérida Initiative, an aid package aimed at helping Mexico, Haiti and Central America curb drug cartel violence. Cuellar supported the aid to Mexico, despite critics who said taxpayer money was being wasted on a corrupt government.
Cuellar said the U.S. gives about $3 billion in aid to countries like Egypt and Israel, and he thought it was in the nation's best interest to help Mexico.
Others have different ideas.
Beto O’Rourke, a former El Paso city councilman who appears likely to win the race the United States House after his Democratic primary win over the longtime incumbent, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, called the initiative a waste of resources.
He said he wanted to stop the rest of what was promised under Mérida, pointing out that even Mayor Hector Murguia of Ciudad Juárez said it was useless. More than 10,000 people have died there in cartel-related violence since 2008, after the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, former allies, went to war against each other.
“We need to talk to those people who know the border and Mexico and talk to the new president coming into office after the elections and then let’s make a decision,” O’Rourke said. “One of the options on the table has to be to discontinue the plan. You have a new president coming in to Los Pinos,” the presidential residence. “You have years of data and analysis you can do on whether it’s been effective.”
Cuellar and McCaul agree that the front-runner’s views on the economy and trade are a step in the right direction. Unlike López Obrador, Peña Nieto is open to expanding markets and privatizing Pemex, Mexico’s petroleum giant. Vázquez Mota has also been open to modernizing Pemex.
The two congressmen also laud Peña Nieto’s willingness to invite the Colombian authorities to aid in training Mexican law enforcement. It would be the closest thing to a greater American influence, McCaul said, after Colombians invited American law enforcement officers to help when Colombia was ravaged by drug crime. Peña Nieto invited former Gen. Óscar Adolfo Naranjo Trujillo of Colombia to join his team as an adviser.
“The idea of our guys fighting alongside the Mexican military, their culture and their history, and frankly their Constitution, wouldn’t allow for that,” McCaul said. “So we thought that the Colombians would probably assimilate better culturally. We thought that was a good marriage.”
State Senator José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he hoped the election would help initiate a new conversation on immigration reform that strays from the fiery rhetoric espoused by the Republican majority in Austin. Gov. Rick Perry, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has cast the debate on an immigration policy overhaul as something that can occur only after the border is secure.
“I happen to think that there has been billions poured in to securing the border and so many record deportations under the Obama administration that we have as secure a border as you can make it,” Rodríguez said. “Every time there is a new regime coming in to Mexico City, I think it is an opportunity for both sides to develop policies.”
Rodríguez said he was especially hopeful that a new conversation would emerge after the Republican Party of Texas adopted a platform advocating for a guest worker program, a measure that platform authors said was the result of a compromise between various factions in the party.
Olson, of the Mexico Institute, said Peña Nieto’s views on immigration policies would encourage the authorities in the United States to improve treatment of illegal workers and expand visa availability, whereas Vázquez Mota would create an under secretary for migrants to advocate for a change in American policy toward a greater focus on human rights. López Obrador would insist on a change in American immigration policies and encourage other Latin American countries to do the same.
Though Texas lawmakers are hopeful, they are urging patience toward a country so important and familial to the United States.
“For anybody that thinks that we can change things overnight, it’s not going to happen,” Cuellar said. “Look at the U.S. economy; we’ve been at it for a while. Mexico is not going to go anywhere, and the U.S. is not going to go anywhere, and we are going to be partners for a long time.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story quoted U.S. Rep Henry Cuellar citing an estimate of $300 billion in U.S. aid to countries like Egypt and Israel. He said he misspoke. The actual amount is about $3 billion, and the story has been updated to reflect the correct amount.