Obama and Peña Nieto: Turning the same page?

By Tom Long
CLALS doctoral research fellow

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

Official White House photo by Pete Souza | public domain

On Saturday, Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto took office and the country’s oldest party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, returned to power. After six years dominated by an exhausting and bloody war against drug cartels, Mexico seems ready to turn the page on outgoing President Felipe Calderón. During the last few months, Peña Nieto has tried to steer the attention of the world—and the United States—away from a disproportionate focus on drug violence. In a recent article published in The Economist, the new president downplayed drug cartels, focusing instead on plans for the economy and to “recover our leadership in Latin America.” Security was just one of thirteen proposals in his inaugural speech. In part, Calderón has given Peña Nieto a head start as he begins his term, leaving behind strong economic growth and a dip in violence. Although Calderón himself started the switch to a violence-reduction strategy, his name is likely to remain closely associated with the frontal military assault on the cartels launched at the beginning of his administration and recalibrated only in his final year; Peña Nieto is positioned to gain credit for a return to normalcy.

This desire to turn the page also marked Peña Nieto’s s pre-inaugural meeting with President Barack Obama. Both leaders seemed to be playing the same tune.  Mexico has become the front line in the war on drugs, and the U.S. has spent billions on military, police, and other projects lumped under a “Merida Initiative” label. After their meeting, Obama and Peña Nieto promised to expand the bilateral agenda to include an expansion of trade, cooperation on energy, and discussions of immigration that go beyond border fences. Obama spoke effusively of Mexico’s importance as a partner, while Peña Nieto said the two had a “shared vision” of how to create jobs in both countries. On the stage with Obama as elsewhere, Peña Nieto reiterated calls for the United States and Canada to build on NAFTA and further regional integration to improve competitiveness.

It would be a healthy change if the two presidents could restore balance between economic and security aspects of U.S.-Mexico relations. Image matters – and the deterioration of Mexico’s brand has undermined both investment and tourism. The military approach to drug trafficking has inflicted enormous costs in economic and human terms with questionable payoffs, but Mexico cannot go back to old patterns of accommodation. Domestically, the new president needs to attack the culture of impunity by building a stronger and more independent judiciary in order to reduce the frightful percentages of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted. Accountability remains weak, especially at state and local levels; improving it would require Peña Nieto to take on powers in his own party. Placing all these objectives under a “Merida plus” framework would counterproductively squeeze broad reforms into the drug-war box. If the two presidents are sincere about rebuilding a balanced partnership, they need to take action quickly on immigration and commerce. Otherwise, the gravitational pull of the war of drugs will again consume bilateral ties.

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