Mexico’s Peña Nieto Talks to TIME: ‘We Can Move Beyond the Drug War’

In a wide-ranging interview, Mexico's President-elect lays out a vision for curbing narco-violence, unleashing economic growth, reforming his once dictatorial party and regaining his country's international stature.

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Felipe Trueba / EPA

Mexican president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto during a meeting with businessmen in Santiago, Chile, Sept. 21, 2012.

Enrique Peña Nieto takes office tomorrow, Dec. 1, as the next President of Mexico—whose young and otherwise successful democracy is beset by narco-bloodshed (60,000 murders in the past six years), an underachieving economy (average annual growth of only 2% since 2000) and a feeling that its Latin American leadership role has been eclipsed by its fast-developing South American rival, Brazil. Peña, 46, the popular former governor of central Mexico state, convinced Mexican voters that his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 as a corrupt, one-party dictatorship, has righted itself enough to right Mexico. (Read TIME International’s cover story on Peña, available to subscribers.) He spoke with TIME’s Latin America bureau chief, Tim Padgett, and Mexico reporter Dolly Mascareñas at his transition headquarters in Mexico City. Excerpts (translated from Spanish):

TIME: Your presidency marks a critical moment for Mexico. What are the most important things you have to do to lift it out of its hole of drug violence and anemic economic growth?

PEÑA NIETO: I’m feeling a renewed sense of hope and optimism about what we can do in the coming years. First, restore peace and tranquility in Mexico, which means altering our public security strategy: more effective law enforcement coordination, stronger judicial institutions. Second, reduce poverty and inequality. Some 52 million Mexicans live in poverty, and we’ve got to seek innovative solutions that not only give them aid but link them to productive activity. The socio-economic contrasts that persist [here] are unacceptable. Third, revive economic growth. We’ve built more favorable macroeconomic conditions in Mexico, but we have to promote more competition and raise our levels of [bank] credit, build up our development banks.

(MORE: Can Obama and Peña Nieto Clear the Marijuana Smoke?)

In your 2010 book, Mexico: The Great Hope, you criticize Mexico’s “ineffective state.” How will you make it more effective—you won only 38% of the presidential vote and the PRI was denied a congressional majority—especially when it comes to corruption, which costs Mexico almost a tenth of its trillion-dollar gross domestic product each year?

Mexico has proven by now that it’s a strong electoral democracy. Now we have to build a democracy that produces better results; if not, then you get a democracy of disenchantment. That means combating the social cancer of corruption. So I’m proposing an autonomous federal institute to ensure more transparency in public records, and an autonomous anti-corruption commission that would be part of Mexico’s Constitution.

Given the strength of the U.S. Latino vote in President Barack Obama’s re-election this month, this a favorable moment for immigration reform. What are your expectations for bilateral relations, not just on immigration but the drug war and trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

I see a lot of opportunity right now. I think we can start moving beyond what is sometimes a monothematic relationship due to the [drug war] issue. We can start focusing on prosperity issues again, like better integrating our economies so we can present a more powerful regional block to the world. The TPP is a great opportunity in that regard. I believe immigration reform is a commitment of President Obama’s government, especially now that it gives him a chance to respond to the great demand expressed by U.S. Hispanic voters for establishing better mechanisms for [cross-border] mobility.

About the drug war, how do the marijuana legalization measures voters just approved in Colorado and Washington complicate drug interdiction for Mexico?

Without a doubt, it opens space for a rethinking of our policy. It opens a debate about the course the drug war should be taking. It doesn’t necessarily mean the Mexican government is suddenly going to change what it’s doing now. But [state legalization] creates certain distortions and incongruences since it’s conflict with [U.S.] federal [law], and that will have an impact on how Mexico and other countries in the hemisphere respond. Personally, I’m against legalization; I don’t think it’s the [right] route. But I am in favor of a hemispheric debate on the effectiveness of the drug-war route we’re on now.

(Cover Story: President-Elect Enrique Peña Nieto Attempts a Dramatic Turnaround for Mexico)

To reduce Mexico’s awful narco-violence, you’ve proposed a national “gendarmerie” and you’re putting the troubled federal police—15 of whose members are under arrest for allegedly being in the pay of drug cartels and ambushing two U.S. C.I.A. agents—under tighter control. But can you really cut the number of Mexico’s homicides by half, as you’ve pledged—and can you assure people that the PRI won’t go soft on drug traffickers?

Cases like the one you mention make it obvious that Mexico needs a much more coordinated and professional judicial power, especially law enforcement and prosecution that makes more effective use of criminal intelligence. Only two of every 100 violent crimes in Mexico result in convictions. There will be no truce or deals with organized crime or drug trafficking; there will be a full assault. But preventing violence and promoting economic and social development are part of a vicious cycle. Without better economic opportunity you can’t have better public security, and vice versa.

You recently got the PRI to push through a major labor reform law, but your plan to allow private investment in Mexico’s state-owned oil industry for the first time in 75 years may be more important.

This is a big energy reform that will require a constitutional amendment. It’s a sensitive national issue for Mexicans, but I think in modern times, if we’re going to realize our energy potential, we have to expand capacity and infrastructure, and that means letting the private sector in. Not privatization but private participation. Brazil is a good example, so is Colombia. On the labor reform, President [Felipe] Calderón and I saw an opportunity to create a more modern framework. I think [its passage] signals more maturity among the political parties, more of an agreement-seeking attitude.

But can Mexico produce meaningful economic growth if you don’t reduce its suffocating business monopolies, especially in sectors like telecommunications and building materials?

I am pushing legislation to strengthen the government’s monopoly-busting organs. One of the most important parts of the bill is appeals reform, to prevent monopolies from being able to resort to the constant, endless litigation they use to avoid paying fines and sanctions. You’ll see, I’m committed to confronting and combating monopolistic practices, because the only way to realize the economic opportunity I’ve been talking about is greater competition, lower prices, better products.

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

The PRI is criticized for having aided monopolies. You say you’re the party’s new face, but critics charge you’re manipulated by its old guard. Has the PRI modernized itself seriously enough to modernize Mexico?

Yes. To get elected in Mexico today you have to compete like any democracy, and you don’t do that by being manipulated. The big challenge now for me and my party is to produce results. If we don’t, we can’t compete. Whatever people may think of it, in its 83 years my party has also proven it can produce results, that it can meet the demands of the time.

Many who know you say your best quality is your ability to listen, that you’re a dialoguista who knows how to negotiate and compromise, which Mexico admittedly could use more of today. Where does that come from?

I genuinely enjoy being among people. I’m not a politician who likes to read the people from a distance; you can’t take [their] temperature that way. I play golf, I love Mexican food—it’s one of the few cuisines in the world that can match France’s, and UNESCO backs me up on that.

We agree. But while mole poblano does rival coq au vin, you’ve lamented Mexico’s reduced regional and international leadership role. How will you regain it?

Mexico got distracted, in part by its security crisis, in part by its deepening relationship with the U.S. I think we’ve learned that our international leadership depends a lot on our internal circumstances. Today, look at Brazil; it’s been an economic growth engine. We have to have better social development, public security, economic growth. In the past, Mexico has traditionally been out front promoting things like regional peace initiatives and free trade, and when we improve our development at home we’ll project ourselves more strongly outside Mexico again.

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