Peña Nieto Tells TIME: I Want to Make Mexico an Emerging Power Again

It will be almost five months before Enrique Peña Nieto is sworn in as Mexico's new President. But will it be enough time for him to figure out what to do with the country's dire economic and security problems?

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Enrique Peña Nieto attends a PRI rally in Tepeaca, Puebla, Mexico

Enrique Peña Nieto was elected Mexico’s next President on July 1. But the big news was that he brought his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico as a corrupt, one-party dictatorship from 1929 to 2000, back to power. That has raised questions about Mexico’s fledgling democracy — concerns that the youthful Peña Nieto, 45, insists are unfounded — its limp economy and the direction the country will take in its war with powerful drug cartels, which has seen more than 55,000 murders since 2006. Peña Nieto, who takes office on Dec. 1, spoke with TIME’s Tim Padgett and Dolly Mascareñas shortly before his victory. Excerpts:

You call yourself the PRI’s “new face,” and many political analysts credit you with progressive administration when you were Mexico state Governor from 2005–11, but critics say you’re simply a good-looking front man for the PRI’s corrupt, antidemocratic old guard, its so-called dinosaurios.
I think that comparison itself is part of an antidemocratic campaign. Democracy demands the presence and participation of all distinct political forces, and the PRI is a live political force that’s still in touch with Mexican society and a large base of support that can’t be ignored. The PRI has eminently changed because Mexico has changed. This is another Mexico today, a democratic culture, and we’re competing strongly again precisely because our proposals promise even more change in Mexico.

There is also concern, especially in the U.S., that you intend to go soft on drug trafficking, as the PRI was accused of doing in the 20th century.
I want to signal very clearly that there will be no truce or deals with either organized crime or drug trafficking. We’re going to combat it with a frontal assault. One of the most important reforms we want to achieve is rule of law in Mexico, building confidence in those institutions.

Yet many suggest your own campaign rhetoric downplays drug interdiction and indicates a changed strategy.
Without a doubt, the priority, the strategy we have to adjust, is reducing violence. And that violence unfortunately is partly a result of the [military] strategy that the government [of current President Felipe Calderón] has been following. We can’t continue that way. So we’re going to follow a strategy focused on three central crimes: murder, kidnapping and extortion. But make no mistake, it’s our duty to finish off the organized crime gangs, including drug traffickers.

Your other big challenge is an economy that has averaged a disappointing 2% growth since 2000.
Mexico urgently needs a series of structural reforms that will detonate its true economic potential and generate more public welfare. Energy, labor, tax and social-security reforms are imperative.

Does that include confronting business monopolies, some of which control as much as 95% of Mexico’s markets, that also choke that economic potential?
Yes, that’s part of the structural reform, including the special antitrust courts I’ve proposed.

On energy reform, you’ve proposed a constitutional amendment to allow private and even foreign investment in Mexico’s state-run oil monopoly, Pemex. Why is that so key in your mind to reactivating growth?
The world is changing, and Mexico can no longer remain behind [national oil companies like Brazil’s Petrobras] in that regard. We have to augment Pemex’s production capacity, and to do that we have to allow more private-sector participation without losing the Mexican state’s proprietary stake.

Washington obviously likes that idea. But can you also be successful dealing with the U.S. on issues like immigration?
I want to initiate a bilateral agenda that helps Mexico and the U.S. together compete with the world better, especially with the economies of Asia and the Pacific. A big part of that has to be immigration reform, to create more sensible and dignified flows of labor that make necessary contributions to both our economies, and I’m going to do everything in my power to promote it.

The other controversial bilateral flow is high-powered guns smuggled into Mexico from the U.S. Can you get Washington to act more strongly on that problem as well?
I hope we can develop more collaboration on border security issues like that, the kind of collaboration that respects Mexico’s sovereignty.

At the World Economic Forum this year, you complained that Mexico seems to have lost its leadership role in Latin America and the world. What will you do to recover it?
Lamentably, Mexico’s image in the world has deteriorated in recent years, from both the violence and the stalled economy. Those problems have left us with a wobbly foreign policy. One of the big goals of my administration will be to reposition Mexico again as an emerging power. That means I have to focus on recovering peace and reactivating economic growth, but Mexico also has to be more proactive in the international scene, commensurate with its demographic, economic and cultural weight.

Mexican voters were pretty mad at the PRI when they finally voted it out of power 12 years ago. Why are they coming back?
Our energy proposal is a good example. It’s going to benefit Mexicans, but the [political] right hasn’t been able to get it done, and the left opposes it. I’m the leader of the only political force in Mexico that can get things done right now.