NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — As traffic hums along in this border city, car radios blare the optimistic promises of Mexico’s presidential hopefuls, all of whom say that if they are elected on Sunday, a new country will emerge.
But the assurances are eclipsed by a cloud of fear and uncertainty that hovers over the city and the nation, an atmosphere created by the murders of more than 55,000 people in Mexico since 2006.
Here in the state of Tamaulipas, more than 1,100 people were killed in cartel-related violence in the first nine months of 2011, according to statistics compiled by the Mexican government and published by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
“No matter who is elected, it will take a long time before confidence is restored,” said one resident, 53, who asked that his name not be used because he was afraid for his safety. “No one goes out after dark here.”
But daytime does not necessarily mean it is safe. On Friday, a car bomb outside the city’s municipal offices injured seven people.
The city has no shortage of macabre landmarks, said a taxi driver, who also asked to remain anonymous. “That’s where they found bodies the other day,” he said, pointing to a railroad crossing in the northern section of the city, less than two miles from the Rio Grande and the Texas-Mexico border. “And that’s where they found more last week,” he added, pointing to a dip in the road at an intersection.
Across the border, Texans are keeping a close eye on the election and its aftermath, concerned that the level of violence in Mexico will continue. “We don’t know how the election is going to play out,” said Federico Garza, the Webb County chief deputy.
“We’re just going to continue our efforts to prevent any spillover.”
Although the key campaign issues of the four presidential candidates have included the economy, transparency and the improvement of social welfare, Mexicans are focused on how to restore peace to a country ravaged by a civil war that was created by the government’s crackdown on the drug cartels, and the cartels’ own battles against one another for dominance over lucrative drug routes.
Recent polls show Enrique Peña Nieto — a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and former governor of the state of Mexico — is leading in the race to become the country’s next leader. The other candidates are Josefina Vázquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN; Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the progressive alliance, made up of the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Labor Party; and Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance Party. As the PRI looks to reclaim the presidency — and possibly control a majority in both houses of Mexico’s Congress — it is trying to shed the negativity associated with the seven decades the party was in power last century.
Observers, including some Texas lawmakers, believe the party may return to the practice of cutting deals with drug cartels to ensure that trafficking routes are not disturbed, that government and law enforcement officials receive their share of the profits and that violence is confined to those in the trade.
“If it’s a question of security, then yes, it would be better,” the same Nuevo Laredo resident who talked about a slow restoration of confidence said of any potential brokering.
Others predict there will be little change. Speaking for more than 70 exiles seeking asylum in Texas, Carlos Spector, an El Paso-based immigration lawyer, said the status quo would prevail and violence would not ebb.
“It’s a shameless corridor of death,” he said. “The election structurally means nothing to these people and will change absolutely nothing.”
Among Spector’s recent clients is a family of 22 that includes business owners and local politicians from the village of Villa Ahumada in Chihuahua state, which borders West Texas.
“They had no protection from the federal government, which is PAN, and no protection from the PRI government, which controls Chihuahua,” Spector said.
President Felipe Calderón’s use of the military to fight criminals has faced criticism, though the majority of Mexicans approve the plan. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that 80 percent of Mexicans support the strategy.
The country is also considered one of the most dangerous for journalists. At least 45 have either disappeared or been killed since 2006, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The Mexican government in June passed an amendment criminalizing attacks on journalists.
“I don’t see how any of the four candidates can have a meaningful impact in organized crime in the short term,” said Jorge Alberto Meléndez Ruiz, the vice president for new media of Grupo Reforma.
“The same grave dangers we are facing right now,” he said.