Mexico's U.S.-backed war against violent drug cartels could undergo a tactical shift, depending on which of the candidates vying to replace outgoing President Felipe Calderón wins this summer's Mexican presidential election.
The importance of the July 1 election to the United States was underscored this week when Vice President Joe Biden flew to Mexico City to meet with the three candidates and assess their attitudes toward U.S.-Mexican relations and the drug war.
Analysts said they expect the next Mexican president to remain committed to the fight, but the strategy may shift from Calderón's heavy reliance on the Mexican military to greater use of the civilian police force and more emphasis on creating jobs and social programs to keep young Mexicans from joining the cartels.
Calderón has long argued that the military is better equipped, better trained and more professional than civilian police agencies, which have traditionally been vulnerable to bribery and corruption. But with U.S. support, there has been better vetting and training of police officers in recent years. And critics of the military say the Mexican army has engaged in human-rights abuses and executions of suspected cartel members.
The next Mexican president also is likely to continue Calderón's pressure on the United States to consider legalizing drugs, especially marijuana, to try to reduce the demand that fuels the illicit- drug trade.
The election and its implications are especially important for border states such as Arizona, where law-enforcement officials are increasingly worried that drug-cartel violence may spread north into the United States. But the entire United States has a stake in what happens, analysts said.
Mexico is the United States' third- largest trading partner, representing nearly 11 percent of all U.S. trade and more than $435 billion in exports and imports. Its stability is crucial to the health of the U.S. economy and U.S. security, foreign-policy experts say.
Sen. John McCain and some other U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern that not all the Mexican candidates seem as committed as Calderón has been to fighting the cartels with all the resources at their disposal. But Biden, after meeting with the three candidates, was asked whether he sensed any significant differences among them on the issue of cooperation with the United States to fight the cartels. He replied, "No."
What may change, experts say, is the strategy that the new Mexican president adopts to reduce cartel violence, which has killed about 50,000 Mexicans during the past five years.
"Calderón has been very focused on breaking up and attacking the cartels and using military force, which in some ways has not been very effective," said Mark Jones, chairman of the political- science department at Rice University in Houston.
"A new president," Jones said, "may favor less of a militarized approach, relying more on civilian police forces and focusing more on economic growth and social-welfare programs to try to keep people from joining the cartels."
The current front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolution Party, known as PRI in Mexico, told reporters after his meeting with Biden: "The discussion is not whether we should or shouldn't fight against it (organized crime) but what we can do to achieve better results."
Peña Nieto has talked about gradually withdrawing the Mexican military from the fight against the cartels, although he has been vague about a specific timeline.
Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, who has been gaining support in recent polls, said she plans to continue Calderón's war on the cartels, including his use of the military, at least until local police forces are ready to assume primary responsibility for the fight, which experts said could take years. Vazquez Mota also wants to increase college scholarships and enact labor reform aimed at increasing job opportunities.
The third candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, said he hopes Mexico and the United States can work together to address some of the root causes of crime -- and of illegal immigration -- by increasing economic-development and anti-poverty programs.
Lopez Obrador has said he would pull the Mexican military out of the fight against the cartels within six months of his election. He would rely instead on state and local police forces, which Calderón has long argued are too vulnerable to being bribed by the cartels.
At a Senate hearing last month, McCain told U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that he didn't believe one of the Mexican candidates was committed to winning the drug war. McCain did not single anyone out by name, and experts say he could have been talking about either Lopez Obrador or Peña Nieto because of their statements about removing the Mexican military from the drug war. But Obama administration officials say they believe they can work well with whomever the Mexican people elect. And experts say they doubt any Mexican president would really be able to give up the fight.
"There will be variations in approaches among the candidates, but I think they all know that there is no appetite in Mexico for the government to turn its back on the war against organized crime," said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "I think that's the reassuring message for the United States."
Less reliance on the Mexican military doesn't worry U.S. officials as long as the new Mexican president remains committed to battling the cartels, Olson said.
"All three of the candidates came out and said they were committed to continuing the war, and that's what Biden wanted," Olson said.
The U.S. government, through the Merida Initiative, already has been working with the Mexican government to reform its judicial system and strengthen its civilian police force to take over from the military. Begun in 2008, the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative has provided Mexico with U.S. helicopters, surveillance aircraft, and communications technology to battle the cartels.
It also has provided training and technology to police and prosecutors and funded programs to strengthen the Mexican judiciary system. And it has funded programs to treat and prevent drug addiction and improve inspections of vehicles crossing the U.S.-Mexican border.
"For the last few years, a lot of our joint efforts have been more about strengthening the rule of law in Mexico," said Alberto Diaz-Cayeros, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California-San Diego. "The federal police have grown tremendously and are very well-trained and well-paid and vetted. Many of them have college degrees. They can take over what is currently being done by the army in places like (the border city of) Ciudad Juarez."
But one strategy that the U.S. government will strongly oppose is any effort by Mexican and Central American leaders to push for the U.S. to legalize drugs.
Because the U.S. is the top consumer of illegal drugs from the cartels, Calderón has urged the U.S. government to consider legalizing drugs to strip the criminals of their enormous profits.
Other Latin American leaders have echoed that sentiment, saying the U.S. must consider legalization since it has been unable to decrease demand for drugs.
Biden, who met with the leaders in Honduras this week, told reporters that the United States continues to oppose that approach as unworkable and unpalatable.
"There is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on legalization," Biden said.
By Erin Kelly, USAToday, March 9, 2012