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Mexicans Focus on Security as Top Election Issue

June 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
In a time of relatively stable economic growth, the top concern for Mexican voters is the national war on cartels and widespread drug violence. Margaret Warner previews the upcoming Mexican election and the various party factions competing for control, including the campaign frontrunner who out-"dazzles" the other candidates.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we begin a weeklong series of reports from Mexico by Margaret Warner.

Her first focus is on its upcoming presidential election.

MARGARET WARNER: A new twist on an old song blared across the plaza of Atlacomulco, Mexico, touting the arrival of Enrique Pena Nieto, the front-runner to be Mexico’s next president. As former governor of this state, he basked in the crowd. This is his hometown and an historic power base for Mexico’s once dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI.

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, Mexican Presidential Candidate (through translator): We’re going to win, but we deserve to win because we have a plan.

MARGARET WARNER: With his matinee idol looks, soap opera star wife and commanding lead in the polls, Pena Nieto seemed poised to vault his party back to power next Sunday after 12 years in the wilderness. The PRI’s seven-decade-long rule was upended in 2000 by voters weary of its self-serving and authoritarian ways.

But that history didn’t trouble farmer Jose Sanchez.

JOSE SANCHEZ, Farmer (through translator): I’m going to vote for Enrique Pena because the PRI governments have gotten projects finished. They have helped the countryside.

MARGARET WARNER: Pena Nieto’s chief rivals have strong bases of support, but can’t match him in the dazzle department, not the left-leaning Party of Democratic Revolution, or PRD candidates, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He came in a razor-close second just six years ago. But after staging drawn-out protests against the result, he lost many Mexicans.

Also struggling, former legislator Josefina Vazquez Mota and current President Felipe Calderon’s business-oriented National Action Party, or PAN. The PAN has delivered slow but steady economic growth at an impressive 4.5 percent in the first quarter this year, but to no avail, says analyst Denise Dresser.

DENISE DRESSER, Political Analyst: The National Action Party is going to be punished at the polls, so this is not going to be a pocketbook election. It’s going to be largely a security election. It’s going to be an election over Calderon’s war on drugs and how that is viewed by many Mexicans as a failed effort, despite the president’s best intentions.

MARGARET WARNER: Some 55,000 people have been killed since early 2007, when Calderon deployed the army against the drug cartels and war broke out between them and between rival gangs.

Many Mexicans now seem to long for the security of days gone by.

ANTONIO LUIS GONZALEZ, Mexico (through translator): There’s a lot of violence. There’s been a lot of murders. Before, there were none.

DENISE DRESSER: People are disillusioned with the state of the country, are seeking a change. And, paradoxically, the former ruling party has positioned itself as the option of change.

MARGARET WARNER: But is this just the old PRI with a fresh face? At a march against Pena Nieto Sunday in Mexico City, anti-PRI sentiment was strong. Israel Martinez says things went downhill after the PRI won the governorship of his state.

ISRAEL MARTINEZ, Mexico (through translator): When the PRI took over, that’s when the killing started, the kidnappings, the extortion. The PRI is with the narco-traffickers.

MARGARET WARNER: Lopez Obrador says the election is about whether voters want to return not to the stability of the PRI era, but its self-dealing.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR, Mexican Presidential Candidate (through translator): The election of July 1 will be a referendum to ask Mexicans if they want to continue the corruption or if they want real change.

LUIS VIDEGARAY, Campaign Manager, Enrique Pena Nieto Presidential campaign: The PRI used to be more of the — more a political system than just a party. That’s not the case anymore. The PRI is just a party, a big party, but it’s just a political party.

MARGARET WARNER: Pena Nieto’s campaign manager, Luis Videgaray, insists fears of a return to the old PRI’s authoritarian style are groundless.

LUIS VIDEGARAY: It’s very different from what it was before. We have full democracy now. And the PRI is part of it. I don’t think this election is about the past.

MARGARET WARNER: There are many critics — and we have talked to some — who say it’s not really a new PRI; it’s the old PRI in new clothing. And once and if it gets back in power, it will still govern with the heavy hand in sort of the old way.

LUIS VIDEGARAY: The citizens would never allow that to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Some young people don’t want to chance it. The new social media-driven student movement is opposing the PRI’s return. They charge Pena Nieto is a creature of Mexico’s two broadcasting giants, Televisa and TV Azteca.

The movement sprouted in early may after Pena Nieto was challenged an, then heckled by students at Ibero-American University. When his campaign dismissed them as political plants, 131 of them shot back with this YouTube video, flashing their school I.D.s.

The video went viral. Connected through Facebook and Twitter, thousands began showing up at anti-PRI rallies, supporting banners proclaiming, “YoSoy132,” “I am number 132.”

RODRIGO SERRANO, YoSoy132 Movement: We don’t want to be treated like kids, you know, or like — like — like a market share. We’re citizens. And we need our voice to be heard like citizens.

MARGARET WARNER: Rodrigo Serrano, who made the YouTube video for the still leaderless YoSoy movement, says young Mexicans won’t be manipulated.

RODRIGO SERRANO: And enormous media corporations are trying to control the information in Mexico and are trying to impose a presidential candidate in a very unethical way.

MARGARET WARNER: But in the social media wars, they’re up against Pena Nieto’s army of young tech-savvy staff.

ALEJANDRA LAGUNES, Enrique Pena Nieto Campaign: Here, they do all the videos you can see in YouTube and EPN TV.

MARGARET WARNER: And EPN TV is Enrique Pena Nieto Television.

ALEJANDRA LAGUNES: Television and YouTube.

MARGARET WARNER: Alejandra Lagunes runs his social media team.

ALEJANDRA LAGUNES: The candidate gets very into social media. So he gives us like special praises for these kinds of videos.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you don’t have to coach him. He is very interested in this.

ALEJANDRA LAGUNES: He is very interested in it. He knows the power of this. The campaign knows the power of the Internet and social media.

MARGARET WARNER: From YouTube, to Facebook, to Twitter, and Instagram, it’s rapid response and promotion at lightning speed. Pena Nieto himself tweets up to 10 times a day. Yet, the YoSoy movement has cost him some support among 18- to 29-year-olds.

ALEJANDRA LAGUNES: For us, it’s really a great challenge. We have to be very creative, very creative on how we approach that.

MARGARET WARNER: The students’ new activism shook up the race, says Denise Dresser.

DENISE DRESSER: I think it’s too small and came too late to make an electoral difference, but it is certainly making a difference in terms of the public debate. It’s also a movement that has shaken up the political establishment in one key area that has to do with media control.

MARGARET WARNER: Ricardo Salinas, owner of the second biggest network, TV Azteca, denies the broadcast duopoly is favoring Pena Nieto.

RICARDO SALINAS, President and CEO, TV Azteca: Everything that you do in the media is subject to scrutiny. But we try to do our best in terms of balance and fairness. So, we stand by that.

MARGARET WARNER: But he took the student movement’s criticisms enough to heart to address them in a lengthy blog.

RICARDO SALINAS: So, I wanted to make it really clear that we support the demands of the youth and the people in general for democracy, for liberty. Just complaining about something and not doing anything is not going to fix things.

MARGARET WARNER: What needs fixing, say most Mexicans, is to speed up economic growth. But is any potential president ready to open up public and private monopolies to competition, the oil and energy sector run by state-owned Pemex, for example, and telecom dominated by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.

LUIS VIDEGARAY: He has to. That’s a must.

MARGARET WARNER: Pena Nieto adviser Videgaray concedes inviting more competition at home and investment from abroad will mean taking on corporate and labor pillars of the PRI.

LUIS VIDEGARAY: I think that the PRI has a good action on these because it can deal with some of the unions, for instance, better than the other political parties.

MARGARET WARNER: Because?

DENISE DRESSER: Only Nixon could go to China. Well, maybe only the PRI can open the economy and get an energy reform or a tax reform.

MARGARET WARNER: But TV tycoon Salinas says faster economic growth isn’t possible if the drug war continues raging in its current form.

RICARDO SALINAS: The leadership has been horrendously distracted by this war, instead of thinking about jobs and investment and employment and education. We’re always catching the next drug leader.

MARGARET WARNER: Ordinary Mexicans are also calling for a new approach in the drug war. At a Saturday market in Monterrey, Maria Belda said two people, one with a baby, were gunned down in her neighborhood just last week.

MARIA BELDA, Market Vendor, Mexico (through translator): Do something about the violence. I cannot go on like this.

MARGARET WARNER: Some other Mexicans outside politics have joined the chorus. This gripping video appeared on YouTube just after the campaign began starring 9- to 11-year-old school children as hitmen, kidnappers, corrupt pols, and innocent bystanders.

GIRL (through translator): If this is the future that awaits me, I don’t want it. Candidates Josefina, Andres Manuel, Enrique, Gabriel, are you just going for the presidency or are you really going to change our country’s future?

MARGARET WARNER: Millions submitted their own visions for the future to the video’s NGO Web site. And last week, Vazquez Mota pledged to carry them out.

JOSEFINA VAZQUEZ MOTA, Mexican Presidential Candidate (through translator): We need a Mexico at peace, where you can play in the park without fear.

MARGARET WARNER: But, promises aside, the candidates have been short on specifics.

DENISE DRESSER: The key issue that’s been missing from this presidential debate is what worries Mexicans the most, which is how to combat insecurity. And it is the issue that the three main candidates have eluded because they don’t seem to have alternatives that are all that different from President Calderon.

MARGARET WARNER: This leaves Mexicans in a fix, convinced they’re losing the struggle against violence, but lacking clear choices from any of their would-be presidents on how to win it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our Web site, you can watch all of that YouTube video with the Mexican children and the student protest video.

Also there, we have posted front-runner Pena Nieto’s Twitter stream. Plus, we have rounded up and translated some of the campaign ads of Mexican’s top presidential contenders. And we have provided links to the candidates’ Web sites. All of that is our World page.