[Right-wing commentators and political analysts are suggesting that Peña Nieto will take Mexico back to the pre-Bush/Calderon era, before the Merida Initiative, when there was no war against the cartels. The anti-neoconservatives insist that “Fast and Furious,” as well as the Chicago testimony of Sinaloa crime boss, Vicente Jesus Zambada-Niebla, prove that even during Calderon’s American-contracted drug war on Mexico, it was business as usual for the biggest cartel, the Sinaloa mafia. By stacking the DEA drug war in Sinaloa’s favor, giving them the intelligence and heavy weaponry that they needed to takeover most of the Mexican drug landscape, the United States has created a “simulated war” in Mexico, which has not affected the flow of drugs north.
If Peña Nieto believed that the ongoing drug war was the correct course and he wanted to wage it more effectively, he would simply eliminate this pro-Sinaloa bias which the DEA and friends have established. But if he was against waging open warfare across most of Central and Northern Mexico, then he would naturally choose to change the circumstances of the operation, creating a focus upon stopping the murders as his first priority. How Obama handles the pot legalization issue will ultimately determine whether Mexico even pursues the whole concept of marijuana interdiction at all, choosing instead to open the floodgates on the marijuana farming and exporting industry, taxing everything for the benefit of the Mexican state.
I certainly wish President Enrique Peña Nieto the wisdom of the ages, as he prepares to possibly set Mexico and the “Colossus of the North” on a wiser, safer course.]
by Daniel González
The Republic | azcentral.com
Mexico’s newly elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office this month promising a new approach to the government’s bloody, six-year battle against the drug cartels — an effort that has left many Americans with perceptions of Mexico as an unsafe, violence-plagued country.
Instead of fighting the cartels head-on like his predecessor, Felipe Calder�n, Peña Nieto plans a broader approach, focusing on homicides, kidnappings and other drug-related crimes while creating jobs to make the drug trade less appealing, analysts say.
While most of the violence has been concentrated in border states away from Arizona, Arizona remains a major corridor for marijuana and other drug smuggling controlled largely by the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful in Mexico.
But there is concern that Peña Nieto, 46, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, will turn a blind eye to the drug cartels as happened under the old PRI, which ruled the country for more than 70 years. The party was known for corruption, autocratic rule and cozy relationships with the cartels until the more conservative and business-oriented National Action Party, or PAN, won the presidency with Vicente Fox in 2000 and again in 2006 with Calder�n.
Before cartel violence erupted, claiming the lives of 60,000 Mexicans since 2006 and making Americans fearful of visiting the country, Arizonans had for decades flocked across the border to shop in Nogales or relax on the beach in Rocky Point, known as Puerto Peñasco, in Sonora.
One of those Arizonans is Jose Alfredo Maldonado, who owns Mariscos Playa Hermosa, a Mexican seafood restaurant near downtown Phoenix.
Maldonado, 51, a naturalized U.S. citizen, grew up in the central state of Guanajuato but left 22 years ago because he was tired of life without opportunities under PRI.
“For 70 years, the PRI promised a better life for the Mexicans, and it’s just not true,” said Maldonado, sitting inside his brightly colored restaurant.
Peña Nieto, a lawyer known for his movie-star good looks and his marriage to Angelica Rivera, a popular Mexican television soap-opera actress, has put forth an ambitious agenda. The former governor of Mexico, the country’s most populous state, has vowed to reduce poverty, boost the economy, create jobs, open the national oil industry to foreign investment and, above all, stem the violence that has “robbed peace and freedom” in communities throughout Mexico.
“We are a nation that grows in two speeds,” Peña Nieto said during his inauguration speech. “There is a Mexico of progress and development, but there is also another one, living in backwardness and poverty.”
About half of Mexico’s 115 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Peña Nieto also takes over as the United States is gearing up to pass immigration reforms next year that could provide a path to legalization for 11 million undocumented immigrants, about 6 million of them from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Still, even though Arizona shares 372 miles of border with Mexico, and one in four residents of the state is of Mexican descent, many Arizonans are unfamiliar with the man who will govern Mexico for the next six years and know little about his goals, including how he plans to reduce drug violence.
When asked what he knew about Mexico’s new president, Sam Alaga, 30, a Phoenix attorney, said, “I would say next to nothing.” Alaga was dining at another table at Mariscos Playa Hermosa and is married to the owner’s daughter, Jazmin.
The approach Peña Nieto will take to stop the bloodshed remains a source of concern, both in Mexico and the United States.
“That’s the big question: How do (they) deal with security?” said Jaime R. Aguila, a history professor at Arizona State University who is an expert on Mexican history. “Obviously, the Calder�n administration has utterly failed in terms of trying to pacify Mexico. They made it more dangerous.”
Before former President Calder�n began cracking down on the drug cartels, PRI was believed to have turned a blind eye, Aguila said.
By electing Peña Nieto, who defeated two other candidates with a plurality of 38 percent, Mexicans have showed they want to return to the old days when the government and the cartels coexisted informally in relative peace, he said.
The people who voted for him “believe that in bringing the PRI back” the party will be able to use its “nefarious relationship” with the cartels “to pacify the country,” Aguila said.
Still, Peña Nieto has made it clear that he will continue to battle the cartels, though not the same way as Calderon, said Eric Farnsworth, who leads the Washington, D.C., office of the Council of the Americas, a think tank and business trade association.
“One of the things he ran on, one of his primary agenda items, was to reduce violence in Mexico,” Farnsworth said. “Now there are a couple of ways to reduce violence. One is you can turn a blind eye to illegal activities. You aren’t going to see violence. It doesn’t mean, though, that you are going to root out illegal activities. He’s been adamant that that’s not the approach he is suggesting. He wants to continue the fight against the cartels, but he also wants to take a more holistic approach.”
That holistic approach includes professionalizing the police and paying officers more so they will be less vulnerable to being corrupted by the cartels, improving the justice system, and creating better-paying jobs so that Mexicans will be less enticed to join the drug trade, Farnsworth said.
What Peña Nieto has not said he would do is try to continue dismantling the cartels by arresting or killing off kingpins. That was Calderon’s approach. Instead, Peña Nieto says he will focus on reducing crimes associated with the cartels, such as extortion, kidnapping and murder.
“The conventional wisdom is that he will choose other ways to deal with the cartels,” said Erik Lee, associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.
Many of the strategies Peña Nieto has outlined for reducing drug violence, including professionalizing the police and focusing resources on communities with high drug-related crime rates, were initiated by Calder�n. There are signs those efforts are working.
“We are seeing now the beginnings of a turn,” said Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
He cited statistics compiled by Reforma, a newspaper in Mexico City, that show that drug-related killings are declining, from a high of 12,366 in 2011 to 9,158 this year.
Peña Nieto also has proposed creating a new national police force to prevent crime, especially in rural areas.
His long-term strategy centers on creating better education and job opportunities targeted at so-called “Ninis,” the term Mexicans use for people who neither study nor work — “NI estudian, NI trabajan.”
Mexico has more than 7.2 million young people who fall into that category, according to the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“They don’t study and they don’t work and there is a great number of youth in that position and that makes them susceptible to being recruited by organized crime,” Wilson said.
But how Peña Nieto’s government will improve educational and job opportunities hasn’t been clearly defined, Wilson said.
“It involves these ideas of social policy and development as a part of crime prevention, but I think there is a lot to define as to exactly what shape that will take,” Wilson said.
Whatever strategy Peña Nieto adopts, reducing violence will be a huge challenge, said Rick Van Schoik, director of ASU’s North American Center for Transborder Studies.
That is because Mexico’s drug- trafficking organizations have become highly entrenched and highly effective at producing and trafficking drugs.
What’s more, the huge demand for drugs in the U.S will continue to make drug trafficking lucrative in Mexico, and therefore difficult to control, Van Schoik said.
“Arizonans should understand that because the hunger for drugs (in the U.S.) has been so strong, that unfortunate but very real complementary (relationship) between the user and the provider will continue,” Van Schoik said.
Peña Nieto has taken over as president at a time when Mexico is poised to become a major economic power.
Mexico’s economy grew by 4 percent last year. Rising labor costs in China are helping to push international companies to relocate manufacturing plants in to Mexico to be closer to U.S. markets, Wilson said. Nissan, Mazda, Volkswagen, Honda, Chrysler and General Motors have expanded existing manufacturing plants in Mexico, Wilson said, and Audi has plans to open a plant there.
The expansion of the auto industry and other types of manufacturing is a sign that Mexico is producing more medium- and high-skilled workers, which is helping to fuel a growth in the country’s middle class, he said.
As a result of improvements in Mexico’s economy, fewer Mexicans are leaving the country and entering the U.S. illegally looking for jobs, and an increasing number of Mexicans living in the U.S. are returning home, Lee said.
A Pew Hispanic Center report released earlier this year found that the number of Mexicans returning to Mexico from the U.S. may now exceed the number coming, reversing four decades of Mexican migration to the U.S.
But Mexico’s rising economic power has been largely overshadowed by drug violence, Wilson said.
Peña Nieto is trying to show that “Mexico is not a drug wasteland as some, though not all, people in the United States perceive it to be,” Wilson said.
One of Peña Nieto’s major goals to help Mexico’s economy is to develop the nation’s energy industry by allowing more private investment, including stakes in the state-controlled oil company known as Pemex, said Aguila, the ASU history professor.
Private investment would allow Mexico to develop the technology needed to exploit its vast oil resources, Aguila said.
But, Aguila said, Mexico has a long history of PRI presidents making promises to improve the country’s economy by exploiting oil reserves and then failing to deliver. “So we have to be very careful when a Mexican president says, ‘We are going to get more money out of the oil industry,’ ” Aguila said.
In late November, four days before assuming power in Mexico, Peña Nieto traveled to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, saying he wanted to strengthen economic ties with the U.S.
“To build a more prosperous future for our two countries, we must continue strengthening and expanding our deep economic, social and cultural ties,” Peña Nieto wrote in an op-ed article in the Washington Post. “It is a mistake to limit our bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns.”
But he faces an uphill battle. Fueled by a constant stream of horrific news stories of mass executions and decapitated bodies, many Americans have a negative perception of Mexico. A recent survey by the Vianova consulting firm found that half of Americans polled view Mexico “very unfavorably” or “mostly unfavorably.” Nearly three-fourths of Americans polled think traveling to Mexico is very unsafe or somewhat unsafe, according to the survey.
Safety concerns linger
The walls inside Mariscos Playa Hermosa in Phoenix are painted ocean blue, and pictures of sailfish and palm trees give the restaurant a beachside feel.
Maldonado, the owner, said he came to this country 22 years ago because he saw little chance of getting ahead in Mexico under PRI.
After saving money for years working as a waiter and bartender in Spanish nightclubs, he bought the restaurant on 16th Street east of downtown Phoenix 10 years ago. The restaurant’s website proudly proclaims that Maldonado and his wife, Maria, came to the United States “in pursuit of achieving the American dream for themselves, and specifically for their children.”
“Through their efforts in establishing Mariscos Playa Hermosa, they have been able to successfully help put their children through college,” the website says.
Sitting at one of the hand-painted chairs Maldonado had made for the restaurant by a furniture maker in Michoacan, a state in southwestern Mexico, he ticked off the accomplishments of his four children.
The oldest is getting her doctorate at Arizona State University, two others are attorneys and the fourth is a college administrator, Maldonado said.
Maldonado still owns a store in Guanajuato that sells fruit.
He used to drive to Guanajuato once or twice a year to check on the store, a 26-hour trip one way. “But a lot of people told me, it’s very dangerous” because of the drug cartels, Maldonado said.
So now he flies.
Montana farmers Zach and Natalie Rathbun winter in Arizona every year. One of their favorite things to do is drive 30 miles from their home in El Mirage to Mariscos Playa Hermosa, which specializes in dishes from the coastal states of Sinaloa and Veracruz.
But that is about as close to Mexico as they get.
The Rathbuns have never crossed the border, even though one winter they lived in Yuma just 15 miles from the international line.
They turned down an invitation from friends to spend a weekend in Rocky Point, the Sonoran beach town four hours south of Phoenix.
And, despite their love of authentic Mexican food, they have no plans to cross the border anytime soon.
They have heard too many horror stories about drug violence in Mexico.
“Everybody scared us about going there,” Natalie Rathbun said.
Reach the reporter at 602-444-8312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.