SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- On Saturday a new president takes power in Mexico -- Enrique Peña Nieto. He inherits a nation that is suffering from a long-running conflict against nacro-traffickers and an economy that has improved but is still anemic.
On this side of the border, Mexico watchers are hoping Peña Nieto will be the pragmatic problem solver that he promised to be during his presidential campaign.
Four days before he was to become Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto was in the White House sitting next to U.S. President Barack Obama. And under a clatter of camera clicks the two exchanged the traditional binational pleasantries.
“I’m going to establish a very strong personal as well as a professional relationship with the president-elect, who I know who has an outstanding reputation for wanting to get things done," Obama said.
Peña Nieto, speaking through an interpreter, endorsed the push for U.S. immigration reform, but mainly stuck to the theme of improving business relations.
“We also share a very important vision, the vision for instance of creating more jobs, not only for the American people but also for the Mexico people," Peña Nieto said.
Peña Nieto will be walking into Los Piños, Mexico’s White House, with an ambitious agenda of business reforms -- and there are also high expectations for the former governor of the state of Mexico. He is a member of the PRI party, which up until 12 years ago was the sole dominant ruler of Mexico for most of last century.
The telegenic Peña Nieto won the presidency with just 38 percent of the vote, and under a cloud of suspicion of electoral fraud. Nevertheless, on this side of the border there’s plenty of hope for Pena Nieto, particularly among the business community and particularly regarding the drug cartel violence along the border.
“The violence is a sideline item that will be taken care of and I think this particular president is serious about that," said Nelson Balido, President of the Border Trade Alliance and who has been working with Peña Nieto’s presidential transition team on border trade issues.
Balido said commerce with Mexico has been booming but the well-publicized cartel violence has been a drag on doing business there.
“I’d hate to even think that he’s going to broker a peace with the drug cartels," he said.
But there is a widespread expectation that that is exactly what Pena Nieto will do.
Trying to take on the drug cartels directly was the failed strategy of outgoing president Felipe Calderon. Over the last six years more than 60,000 people have been killed.
Meanwhile, parts of the United States are moving forward with some drug legalization. And according to Congressman Henry Cuellar that’s sparking some uncomfortable conversations with Peña Nieto’s transition team.
“And they’re saying “hey you know here you are in Colorado and Washington states, you’re legalizing marijuana. In our country there are people being killed every single day, and we’re getting mixed messages from the U.S.'” Cuellar said.
Cuellar represents the border city of Laredo, Texas and is rumored to be on the shortlist to be the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He said Peña Nieto is not about to wave the white flag to the drug runners, but the incoming president is focused on creating a more fruitful business climate in Mexico, and that means stopping the border bloodshed.
Richard Perez of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce is another border business booster.
He claims if Peña Nieto can reduce the drug war disruptions, then foreign investment will pour in, cross border manufacturing will skyrocket and Mexico can fulfill its promise to be the new China.
“The country of Mexico in general has been so beaten down by the drug violence that there’s hope that this new president will bring a fresh new direction to that battle," Perez said.
The key word is “hope," because Peña Nieto hasn’t been forthcoming with details about his plan to deal with the drug lord other than to promise peace and talk vaguely about changing tactics.
The drug cartels are also expressing hope: There are reports of banners popping up in cities in Mexico, posted by the cartels, that say they’re looking forward to the next president and bidding a fond farewell to the outgoing Calderon.pe="oembed" align="left" >http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j59Taw2JZyY