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Will the Return of the PRI Mark a Shift in Drug War or in U.S. Relations?

The PRI’s return to power in Mexico has prompted concerns over whether the party will cut deals with cartels to decrease drug-related violence. But experts say Mexican authorities will likely do what the U.S. authorities do.

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The likely return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in Mexico has prompted Mexicans and Texans alike to question whether the party’s former alleged practice of making deals with cartel members will be the standard after President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto is sworn on Dec. 1.

But some experts on U.S.-Mexico relations say that what the party is likely to do — focus on the most brutal elements of organized crime — isn’t deal-making or playing favorites, but instead similar to what American law enforcement does: focus resources where they are needed most.

Peña Nieto edged leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador after garnering 38.2 percent of the vote, or 19.2 million ballots, to López Obrador’s 31.6 percent, about 15.9 million. Josefina Vázquez Mota, of current President Felipe Calderón’s National Action Party, finished third with 25.4 percent, about 12.8 million ballots cast, according to the official and final computations released late Monday by the country’s Federal Electoral Institute.

Peña Nieto has said he wouldn’t make deals with elements of organized crime. He also says he will continue Calderón’s battle with cartels, which has led to more than 55,000 deaths in the country since 2006. But, he adds, it will be modified. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Peña Nieto said the campaign would not undergo radical changes but would focus on tackling smaller pockets of criminals.

“There are, without a doubt, some accomplishments and some gains that this administration has made, like the growth of the national police force,” he told the Morning News. “But we also need to do other things like create special units with the help of the military, to operate in smaller communities where criminals hide, gangs find refuge.”

Andrew Selee, a senior adviser at the Woodrow Wilson’s International Center for Scholars’ Mexico Institute, said that although the change might sound alarm bells for U.S. lawmakers, it’s not an uncommon practice here.

“I think they [deal-making and policing] blend into each other a little bit, and that will be hard for people to take,” he said. “I think you are going to see a greater emphasis on strategic policing and prosecution, which is going after the worst offenders first.

“When an honest cop says to a gang in D.C. or Austin, ‘We know what you’re doing, and if you don’t do anything dumb, then we’re going to have less to say about it than when you do,’ that’s good policing, right? And all these informal contacts go on all the time, with local gangs and gang leaders,” he said.

But local politicians and police officers in Mexico, whose low wages make them ripe for corruption, may continue to cut deals with criminals, Selee said.

“It will be confusing sometimes to find out when is this a strategic decision to pursue the worst cartels and when it is looking the other way because someone is doing a favor for someone in organized crime,” Selee said.

A bright spot for Mexicans and Americans alike, however, is Peña Nieto’s willingness to reach out to officials outside of Mexico for advice. Much has been made about his calling on Colombia’s retired Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a former police commander, to be his security adviser.

“I'm hopeful Peña Nieto will continue the important fight President Calderón has led against the drug cartels since he took office in 2006,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has been critical of the U.S. and Mexican governments over border security and immigration policies.

“It is a good sign that Mr. Nieto has enlisted former head of Colombian National Police Oscar Naranjo, who was extremely successful in countering the FARC in Colombia,” he added.

The situations are not parallel, Selee cautions, but a move forward nonetheless.

“Mexico is about organized crime, not about guerrilla warfare,” he said. “But on the other hand, I think it’s a positive sign that Mexico is reaching out beyond its borders for advice, and that may turn out to be a good thing.”

Image and dialogue

The relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, which has been tense for decades, is unlikely to change quickly with Mexico’s shift in power. As the nations maintain symbiotic cultural and economic ties, they differ on the issue of illegal immigration.

Peña Nieto’s views on immigration policies would encourage the authorities in the U.S. to improve treatment of illegal workers and expand visa availability.

In April, state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, sent a letter to Calderón asking that Texas be reimbursed for the cost of providing services to Mexicans living in Texas illegally, which he estimated at $6 billion to $8 billion.

Larson told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday the intent was to begin a dialogue with Mexico in hopes of curbing illegal immigration in to Texas, which he said the Mexican government encourages. 

“A different approach would be to have a discussion with the Mexican government about what they can do to control some of the expenditures all of the states, especially Texas, have to pay out of the same pool of money that we are providing for our citizens,” he said.

In May 2010, Calderón blasted the U.S. after Arizona passed its controversial immigration-enforcement law and said the U.S. was partly responsible for the heavy violence in Mexico because of what he said were lax U.S. gun laws.

In a written statement after Calderón’s remarks, Cornyn pushed back strongly at Calderón’s insinuations.

“It was inappropriate for President Calderón to lecture Americans on our own state and federal laws,” Cornyn said. “Arizona’s immigration law has been amended to make clear it does not authorize racial profiling by law enforcement. Moreover, the Second Amendment is not a subject open for diplomatic negotiation, with Mexico or any other nation.”

Selee said whether that sort of negative dialogue continues, at least with respect to immigration, depends on whether illegal immigration continues at its current pace, which the Pew Hispanic Center said recently had stopped altogether.

“I don’t think it’s going to disappear tomorrow, but my sense is that in the long term it’s going to be less politically salable because there just aren’t as many people coming over without documents anymore,” he said.

The general mistrust both nations have, however, is another matter.

“This is actually one of the dangers,” Selee said. “I don’t think Peña Nieto is anti-American in any way, but I think there are people in the PRI who are used to the anti-imperialist discourse because it’s politically useful at home,” he said. “The same way there are U.S. politicians who use anti-Mexican and anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric because it’s politically useful for them.”

Others say it can be cast aside as little more than rhetoric.

Antonio Garza, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who is now counsel with the Mexico City office of White & Case, said the Texas-Mexico dynamic would probably trump the headline-making banter.

"A certain amount of that is for political consumption, and my approach has been to discount it,” he said. “I don't know if we'll ever see it entirely go away but on the balance, I think Texas leadership and leadership in Mexico both prior to this administration and in the future, realize and appreciate how important this relationship is."

The new PRI, as it has branded itself, will also face a test in transparency and democracy that will be graded by an element the country didn’t have during the former regime, an energized youth movement that will hold the government responsible.

“I don't think what you're seeing [with this election] is a wholesale rejection of Mexico during the last 12 years,” Garza said. “People will be looking closely at Mr. Peña Nieto’s fiscal, labor and energy policies. The civil-society genie is out of the bottle, and the 18-to-30-year-old demographic is out of the bottle. They are going to hold government accountable and say, 'We expect more; we want to raise our children here.'”

Not conceding

Though most of the world is moving forward with the mindset that Peña Nieto will be sworn in as Mexico’s next leader in December, López Obrador, the second-place finisher, is continuing to fight.

After the final tallies were released Monday, López Obrador said he would officially challenge the final results and accused the PRI of buying about 5 million votes. López Obrador, who lost by less than 1 percent of the vote total in 2006 and led a protest then, said he would determine his next move later this week.

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