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The Most Important Presidential Race You Haven’t Heard About

Enrique Pena Nieto and his wife telenovela actress Angelica Rivera Hurtado at a rally in Atlacomulco, Mexico. Photo by Morgan Till for the PBS NewsHour.

ATLACOMULCO, Mexico | Enrique Pena Nieto, the telegenic front-runner in the Mexican presidential race, waded into an adoring hometown crowd Sunday … sleeves rolled up to the elbows, reaching out to touch outstretched hands like a 21st century Bobby Kennedy. “I came here when I ran for governor, I came here when I ran for deputy and I’ve come back to this plaza running for president,” he cried. “We’re going to win!”

The crowds cheered lustily. And indeed, as the July 1 election for a new president and parliament draws near, Mexicans have plenty to cheer about. In just 15 years, it has leapfrogged from roughly the world’s 20th-ranked economy in 1996 to the 12th biggest, more than doubling in size. In the first quarter this year, Mexico grew at a 4.6 percent rate, and posted 5 percent official unemployment in April — numbers the staggering United States economy can only envy.

Source: World Bank

And though nearly half of Mexicans still live in poverty, more are joining the middle class. All this, and a plummeting birth rate, has led to an astonishing development: new U.S. Census and Mexican data show that migration to the United States is now matched by an equal number of Mexicans returning home. But Mexicans want to grow even faster. The pressing economic debate here right now is how to make that next leap forward — the sort of debate any “normal” country might have in a campaign year.

But sadly, Mexico is not a “normal” country. It’s a nation stalked by organized crime and shocking drug-fueled violence, more than 50,000 lives taken in the last five-plus years, ever since President Felipe Calderon decided to use the military to take on the drug cartels. Children’s birthday parties have been shot up by gunmen; other children have been kidnapped for ransom. Cemeteries in the border city of Juarez are filling up fast with the thousands slain each year. Just last month, outside the gleaming city of Monterrey, 49 headless, limb-less bodies were dumped by the side of the road, an act barbarically videotaped in the dead of night and posted online by the Zetas drug cartel. Over the dark screen, one hears the chilling banter: “How many are left? How many are left?” (Warning: Video is extremely graphic.)

To be sure, many towns and regions remain relatively untouched by the violence. Murder rates vary wildly, from 2 per 100,000 in sparsely populated Yucatan to 111 per 100,000 in Chihuahua along the Texas border. Indeed, your risk of being murdered in Mexico City is only one-quarter the risk in Washington, D.C. Yet a sense of foreboding haunts this entire nation, says Jorge Buendia, a leading pollster. “Many Mexicans don’t encounter this violence in their own daily lives,” Buendia said. “But they know it is happening, and their country is in trouble.”

Source: The Economist

Why, with Greece churning and civil war unfolding in Syria, have we come to Mexico to cover this election? Because if Mexico fails, the blowback to the United States would be enormous. America’s security is boosted hugely by having stable neighbors to the north and south. If what’s unfolding in Mexico were happening in Afghanistan, we’d be calling it a narco-state or even a “failing state.”

Yet Americans, whose appetite for drugs creates much of the market for Mexico’s cartels, seem almost blasé about the disorder that’s developing to the south. “This is the most important strategic bilateral relationship the US has,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State John Feeley. “It carries the greatest price to get it right — and the greatest cost for getting it wrong.”

In early April, an arresting video appeared on YouTube. Set in a smog-filled Mexican city, Ninos Incomodos (Uncomfortable Children) stars fresh-faced kids as muggers, kidnappers, immigrant smugglers, corrupt businessmen and on-the-take cops. One scene from hell piles atop another. Little girls shriek and cower in the streets as machine gun bullets fly. The video’s provenance is murky, and some dismissed it as the work of Mexican corporate interests trying to boost Pena Nieto’s candidacy. But that misses the point. Watching 7-to-9-year-old children fill these roles so convincingly, I began to cry. Too many Mexican children may grow up to fill those roles for real if something doesn’t change. Yet none of the presidential contenders has outlined what he or she would do differently.

In the video’s last scene, inside a prison, the voice of a young girl is heard: “If this is the future that awaits me, I don’t want it,” she says. “Enough working for your political parties and not for us. Stop fixing the country only on the surface.” Then the girl appears, staring into the camera: “Candidates Josefina, Andres Manuel, Enrique, Gabriel,” she says accusatorily, addressing the four presidential contenders by name, “Your time is up! Mexico has hit rock bottom. Are you just going for the presidency? Or are you really going to change our country’s future?”

Questions for the candidates, and a nation, to ponder, and for us to explore.

This post marks the launch of our online and on-air series about Mexico’s July 1 elections and drug war.

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