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Where Frontrunner Pena Nieto Might Take Mexico’s Drug War

Military police stand guard at the scene of a murder in Juarez, Mexico. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Mexico’s presidential candidates have offered so few specifics about the No. 1 issue to voters — how to tame the grisly violence of their nearly six-year-long drug war — that, in the words of Juarez news photographer Julian Cardona, “It’s as if they’re living in another country.”

That’s fueled a cottage industry of contradictory speculation. “Candidates in Mexico signal a new tack in the drug war,” proclaimed a New York Times headline on June 10.

“Mexico election unlikely to reshape drug war,” the Los Angeles Times declared on June 24.

PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto campaigning in Monterrey City. Photo by Daniel Aguilar/Getty Images.

So what to expect from “PRI” party candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, who’s riding an outsized lead in the polls going into Sunday’s election?

To find out, we went to see Luis Videgaray. His title as campaign manager vastly understates his influence with the candidate.

This MIT-educated economist is Pena Nieto’s closest adviser and, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “broadly seen as the brains behind the candidate.”

Without hesitation, Videgaray said Pena Nieto is determined to reorient President Felipe Calderon’s current approach, which has deployed the Mexican army and Marines to break up the most powerful drug cartels and bring down its kingpins.

“As a country we should acknowledge that we have learned something … a painful learning over this past six years,” Videgaray said. Put simply, the fight must be reorient those forces to end the killing spree that’s claimed more than 55,000 Mexican lives.

“Enrique Pena Nieto has said that we need to very quickly prioritize reducing violence,” he said. If not, “we as a country are endangering the social support for fighting crime.”

In other words, to keep the Mexican public behind the fight, people will have to be able to work, shop and go to school once again without fearing for their lives.

That doesn’t mean, Videgaray quickly added, making deals or colluding with cartels as some PRI governors — and those of other partners, too — have done.

But in a world of limited money and security manpower, it would mean “perhaps not doing some other things that need resources now.”

The argument for refocusing the fight was passionately made to us over enchiladas and potent Mexican mezcal one night by Mexico City businessman and co-founder of “Mexico United Against Violence” Armando Santacruz: To wit: any new president’s first responsibility will be to protect his own people, not prevent cocaine shipments to drug-hungry consumers in the United States.

“Let’s recover our cities, our highways, let’s reduce the kidnapping rates, and let’s deal as much as we can with drug trafficking. But it’s not going to be our primary focus,” Santacruz said. “Our primary focus is, we live here, our parents live here, our grandparents live here, our kids are going to be living here. We’ve got to recover the safety for everyone. ”

Santacruz argues the best way to do that is to hammer the most violent cartels operating in Mexico and their customers in the United States, starting with the atrocity-happy Zetas, even if that means letting the others be.

“Criminals in the end are human beings who respond to incentives, so if you beat very hard on the violent ones they’ll learn that well maybe we should conduct our trade on a more peaceful fashion,” he said.

How would the United States feel about a shift like this? After all, for the last nearly six years, Washington has been actively helping Calderon’s cartel-busting approach with training, equipment, even drone overflights to collect intelligence on cartel operations and leaders.

U.S. officials react gingerly to the question, mindful of Mexican sensitivities about sovereignty. “We are ready to talk to the new Administration about its proposed strategy,” said an American official here. “Clearly there has to be a partnership. As in any partnership, partners listen to each other and try to find a way to meet each other’s needs.”

What Washington will want to ensure is that a shift in Mexican strategy doesn’t amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card for the most potent cartels, simply because they operate as pragmatic businessmen instead of trigger-happy teenage gangs.

There was a final sweet-and-sour message for Washington from Videgaray. The sweet: Despite the PRI’s history of suspicion toward its powerful neighbor to the North, Pena Nieto would want to maintain and even intensify the cooperation that’s blossomed in the Calderon years.

“That is a must,” Videgaray said, “because otherwise we’ll be in a strategic disadvantage against the crime organizations. These are international powerful, rich cartels and there is absolutely no way that we can deal this as a domestic issue.”

The sour: Down the road, Mexico just may consider legalizing drug use, to eliminate the lucrative black market here, and the bloody fights over local turf that have claimed so many lives.

“It has to be looked at as part of the debate,” he said. “Current opinion is not in favor of it, at least not immediately, but it’s something we would anticipate will be a growing debate.”

That’s not just his own view, Videgaray emphasized. Pena Nieto himself “is absolutely open to debate. He understands it will be a growing debate.”

Any active discussion of legalization in Mexico is certainly far off. Still, the Obama Administration scrambled to tamp down such talk from other Latin American leaders earlier this year. It’s not something Washington would like to hear from the new leader of its most vital partner to the South.

View all of the NewsHour team’s reports on the Mexican election and drug war.

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