Mexico’s new leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, faces two huge challenges—a bloody drug war and an economy in transition.
The U.S. isn’t the only country in North America experiencing election fever this year. Mexicans recently voted for a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto (above). The 46-year-old will be sworn into office on December 1.
Topping Peña Nieto’s to-do list is finding a way to stem the drug-related violence that plagues the country. Powerful illegal-drug cartels have long been a problem in Mexico, where they control large areas of the country. When the current president, Felipe Calderón, took office in 2006, he cracked down on drug traffickers, hoping to loosen their control. The cartels responded with fury, resulting in a surge in kidnappings, murders, and other violent crimes. Many of the 47,000 people killed were bystanders caught in the crossfire.
Peña Nieto has promised to lessen the bloodshed, but he hasn’t spelled out how. “The fight against crime will continue,” he said, soon after winning the election in July. “Yes, with a new strategy to reduce violence and protect, above all, the lives of Mexicans.”
To succeed, he will need U.S. cooperation. The cartels’ wealth and power come largely from Americans’ demand for illegal drugs, especially marijuana and cocaine. The payoff is huge: Overthe- border drug trafficking earns the cartels about $13 billion a year.
Peña Nieto’s other big challenge will be guiding Mexico’s economy. The country has done well since 1993, when it signed an agreement with Canada and the U.S. to expand trade among the three nations. Now the second-largest economy in Latin America (after Brazil), Mexico has become a major exporter of oil, cars, computers, and electric appliances.
As the economy has grown, so has the size of the middle class. But many people still live in poverty, and they will look to Peña Nieto for help. When Mexico was a poorer country, hundreds of thousands of people a year crossed the border—most illegally—to work in the U.S. and send money home to their families. Now that the U.S. economy is struggling and Mexico’s has improved, fewer Mexicans are coming to the U.S. Some are even returning home.
Mexicans both at home and abroad are now looking to their president-elect to make good on his campaign slogan: “Peña Nieto knows how to deliver.” Whether he can do it—with or without U.S. help—remains to be seen.