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The Mexican People’s Dilemma in Drug War Is Next President’s, Too

Mexican soldiers unload bundles of seized marijuana before incinerating the drugs at a military base in Tijuana, Mexico in 2010. Photo by David Maung/Getty Images.

MEXICO CITY — I wandered into an artsy jewelry shop Tuesday afternoon in Pedragal, an upscale neighborhood in Mexico City. I left not only with a sparkly gift for a friend, but with deeper and more troubling understanding of the dilemma facing the Mexican people — and whomever they elect as president on July 1.

The owner — I’ll call her Susana — was a lovely woman, the bilingual daughter of a prominent family, now a mother and grandmother herself. We began chatting about the state of affairs in Mexico and the upcoming election.

Within minutes, her face reddening and eyes misting, she described being shaken down by criminals who called in the middle of the night and claimed to have kidnapped one of their daughters. Her husband even delivered a ransom of American dollars to a local park. It turned out to be all a ruse, but she remains terrified at the memory.

“We live in fear,” she said. “President Calderon did the right thing to take on the cartels. But something’s missing.”

What the outgoing president hasn’t done effectively in the drug war, she said, is confront corruption among local officials, the police and many public officials. “We need a change with the new president, but I don’t have high hopes,” she said. “None of them are up to the job.”

I begged her to let my cameraman film her talking about this. “I’m afraid,” she said, shaking her head. “They know where I live. They know everything.”

This fear of the unnamed “they,” the organized crime syndicates who run drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking operations, puts a human face on dry numbers like those in today’s new Pew Research Center survey on Mexico.

It helps explain Pew’s apparently contradictory finding: Despite those feelings, and the more than 50,000 Mexicans killed in five-plus years of war between this nation’s security forces and its drug cartels, 80 percent of those surveyed endorsed President Felipe Calderon’s decision to use the Mexican military to confront the traffickers. Yet less than half are reassured by the result. Just 47 percent of those surveyed think the army-led campaign against the ever-bolder drug gangs is “making progress;” 49 percent see the army losing ground or locked in a stalemate at best.

How to explain the discrepancy? Why would people back Calderon’s decision to deploy military troops in the drug fight if they don’t think it’s working?

“The Mexican people don’t know where to turn, and the military is one of only two institutions that Mexicans trust,” said a leading pollster here. Jorge Buendia, whose Buendia y Laredo firm reported similar findings earlier this month. “They don’t trust the government and they don’t trust the police, but they do trust the military and the church.”

The Pew survey confirmed that: by a 73-23 percent margin, Mexicans see the military as having a “good” influence in Mexico. By a 58-28 percent margin, they see the police as having a “bad” one.

One would hope that less than two weeks before a presidential election, Mexicans would be looking expectantly to one of the candidates to do better. But Pew found many Mexicans, like “Susana,” don’t think anyone is up to the job.

Not one of the three leading contenders — Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) or Josefina Vasquez Mota of Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) — gets even one-third of voters saying they can do a better job dealing with organized crime and drug traffickers. And none of them gets even one-fourth of voters thinking they’ll do better combating corruption.

All the candidates have pledged to refocus the anti-cartel effort, to wage it more smartly, but none of the three is proposing a radical change.

In editorial columns and among Mexico City’s policy and chattering classes, there’s growing talk of focusing the military firepower on the more violent cartels, like the notorious Zetas.

“It’s been tremendously expensive for our country to be on this path. I think that needs to change,” Ricardo Salinas, chairman of the nation’s second-largest broadcaster, TV Azteca, told me Tuesday.

“We definitely need a new strategy here. To do the same thing and expect a different result, that has to be called crazy.” What’s left unarticulated, at least by the candidates, is whether a shift in focus would mean leaving the less violent cartels in peace to ply their trade.

This leaves voters, and the incoming president, with a dilemma: How to fight what Mexicans see as the nation’s top problems — cartel-related violence, crime and the human rights violations committed in the name of fighting them — when there are so few institutions the Mexican people trust to do it?

Will they give their new president the running room to try, without turning their back on the hard line against the cartels? There’s just one bright spot in the Pew poll that suggests they might: how Mexicans feel about their economic prospects.

Certainly, by nearly 2-to-1, they think the Mexican economy is “bad,” but they felt that way by a much bigger 3-to-1 margin just two years ago. What’s more, an astonishing 51 percent of Mexicans expect their own personal economic situation to improve this next year; only 16 percent think it will get worse.

Perhaps it’s just the famed Mexican resilience at play here, or perhaps they’re right about their country’s economy. Either way, it may just buy the next president time to keep up the fight.

The NewsHour is covering the July 1 presidential election from Mexico. View all reports.

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