Can Mexico's New President Turn The Corner?

Mexico's President-elect, Enrique Pena Nieto, is promising to work closely with President Obama. Pena Nieto was in Washington this week ahead of his inauguration on Saturday. Host Michel Martin speaks with Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, and Stephen Johnson from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, Republicans are still criticizing United Nations ambassador Susan Rice for her response to the attack in Libya that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador there. We'll ask our panel of women commentators, our Beauty Shop roundtable, to weigh in on whether the critique is fair and whether the Obama administration's response to the critique is on point.

That's in just a few minutes. But first we want to talk about another important diplomatic relationship - with Mexico. The country's president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto takes office on Saturday. With just days to go before his inauguration he's touring the U.S. and Canada, and yesterday he spoke with another president-elect - President Obama - and met some members of the media.

Pena Nieto says immigration and the country's violent drug war are high on his list of priorities, but he also said he hopes to reboot the U.S. relationship to focus more on trade and economic development. We wanted to know more about Mexico's new president as well as the outlook for U.S.-Mexico relations, so we've called Alfredo Corchado. He is the Mexico Bureau Chief of the Dallas Morning News. He's in Mexico City.

Also with us, Stephen Johnson. He's with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's the director of the Americas program there and also former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the administration of George W. Bush. And he's been an election observer in Mexico and across Latin America. He's here in Washington D.C. with me.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

STEPHEN JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel.

ALFREDO CORCHADO: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado, I'm going to start with you. I think a lot of Americans might be surprised that Mexico's president-elect would leave the country right before his own inauguration. Why was this trip scheduled for this time?

CORCHADO: Well, it's a very important neighbor, as we all know. It's been planned for a while. Obviously, the Mexicans were waiting for the outcome of the U.S. election and they also feel it's important to begin the relationship of building trust, building the friendship with the United States. So, if anything, this was more to kind of set the tone between the two men.

There's already talk of, I think, Pena Nieto invited President Obama to Mexico on a state visit sometime next year. So this is the beginning, I think, of many more visits in the near future.

MARTIN: Obviously, we want to talk about what Mexico's priorities are for this relationship but I don't know how we can not talk about the ongoing drug war, if I can use that phrase. And I know that some people don't even agree with that phrasing there. I mean just the level of violence, the level of death associated with the - kind of the social chaos.

There was a poll that was recently published in the National Journal by a consulting group that said that the survey highlights what had been widely assumed - that Americans have a generally unfavorable view of Mexico in large part, you know, because of all the news about the drug war there. So Stephen Johnson, I'll start with you. What needs to happen to arrest this? Is there something that the presidents can do, at their level, to intervene in this cycle of violence?

JOHNSON: Well, a number of Pena Nieto's campaign advisors had said already that they wanted to shift the relationship to be seen as one that was more involved with trade and expanding economic opportunity. But the thing of it is, is that trade was actually one of the big agenda items back in the 1990's when the three made kind of a decision and President Salinas Gortari made a decision to lobby for the U.S.-Canada trade pact to become what now is today NAFTA.

Since then, Mexico has really gone far down the line to become a free trading nation with a number of countries in the world, I think. The congressional research service says that they have 12 agreements with some 44 nations right now. And that outstrips the United States by about two to one.

MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado, what about that?

CORCHADO: You know, it's just that, that that poll that came out, the poll you're talking about, the GSD&M out of Austin, was pretty surprising. When they asked Americans to come up with three words that describe Mexico, nearly every other word - every other person answered drugs followed by poor and unsafe. And I think that really serves as a benchmark for Pena Nieto.

The Mexican media today, you know, they're reporting that not much was said, it was just a courtesy visit, blah, blah. But if you read carefully, Pena Nieto's words, I mean, he was there very much to change the narrative. Yes, the drug war is important. Yes, it is a priority. It's not going to go away anytime soon.

Sixty thousand people have been killed in the last six years and 24,000 disappeared. But the economy is doing well. It's growing, I think, twice at the rate as Brazil. The country is still very much - it's going into a middle class society. More cars, more homes, better schools, etc. And that's, I think, what he has to change if Mexico is to get beyond being this country that's associated with hit men and so forth.

MARTIN: Well, does Pena Nieto have a specific plan to address this level of violence?

CORCHADO: He has said, you know, we're not going to lay off. We're not going to offer a truce to the cartels. The difference that he emphasizes is that we're not going to go after the drug lords, the capos. We're going to try to bring violence down for the average Mexican, violence that's associated with organized crime.

And I think there was a poll last night, released here in Mexico City, that says half of the population wants Pena Nieto to continue taking on drug cartels, but yet - this is the surprising part - 51 percent of them said they want some kind of peace treaty, some kind of negotiation with cartels. So he's, you know, it's right down the middle.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're talking about the president of Mexico, the president-elect trip to Washington D.C. and his meeting with President Obama. We're talking about what's on his agenda and what is the prospect for U.S.-Mexico relations.

Stephen Johnson, what would a refocused relationship with the U.S. look like? A relationship that, as Pena Nieto has said and his - his advisors said it is more focused on trade and less focused on the drug war. What would that look like?

JOHNSON: I think that's more rhetoric than anything else because the relationship with the United States has been evolving for the last 20 years. It really started with Salinas Gortari and the beginning of NAFTA, and then with free and fair elections that brought an opposition party, the PAN, to power for two seccenios(ph) and now it's kind of continuing along a trajectory of more and more cooperation.

So I don't think it's as much a reboot as it is a continuation and an evolution into something else. What Alfredo said about going back and having some kind of an arrangement with the drug cartels, sort of harks back to the way things were when the cartels had an arrangement, under the governors, and a very strong presidential system in the pre.

And I don't know if you can put that back into Pandora's box. The real evidence, I think, is what he's going to do. And of course, during a campaign you can't say very much about what your specific plans are because somebody's out there that's going to torpedo that. And I don't think that he and his campaign staff and his advisors really wanted that to happen.

But he did something that was really very interesting from a sociological perspective. He invited General Oscar Naranjo of Columbia, Columbia's retired police chief, to come and be his security advisor and to advise on a particular strategy to reduce violence in Mexico. So he is forging out in new directions, but I think he's keen to listening to what the public has to say so that he can cast it in a way that sounds like he's not upsetting the apple cart.

MARTIN: Alfredo Corchado, are there specific things that they are looking for to change in their relationship with the U.S. or with the Obama administration?

CORCHADO: It was interesting yesterday, when he met with President Obama and the issue of immigration came up. He was very clear in saying we're not here to lobby the United States. We're not here to press the United States. We're here to support immigration reform. And that was a change from, I think, the last 12 years when first President Fox went up to D.C. and said we must do this.

And I think he even set a deadline, you know, for doing that. But I think the Mexicans, or the Mexican government, has learned that when it comes to immigration, it's a very emotional issue on both sides of the border. I think they learned that they have to let the Americans do it themselves. It's an internal issue for them. It's an internal debate and all Mexico can really do is watch from the sidelines and see what happens.

I think the other thing that's important is, when we talk about the drug war, you can't forget the presence of the United States. I mean in the last 12 years, cooperation between Mexico and the United States is such that some members of the pre-Pena Nieto's government have expressed some concern, some doubt, that maybe the Americans are too much in the kitchen of the Mexican government and they're trying to find a way to push him out. I don't think that's possible anymore. I think Stephen's right. You know, you can't put the genie back in the bottle.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Alfredo Corchado, you know, we often ask this question around elections in the United States, which is, what is people's general outlook on their country on the eve of this new administration taking office?

CORCHADO: Well, I'll go back to the poll last night. It was very interesting that the country is very divided. They have very high expectations that Pena Nieto will somehow bring down the violence, somehow the economy will grow. I mean there is, at this point, zero migration to the United States, but they're hoping that even if the United States economy picks up, that Mexicans will still be able to stay in Mexico and build - keep building on that middle class society and transform into a country of rule of law.

MARTIN: Stephen Johnson, I'm going to ask you to give us the final word here. What is your sense? Knowing the country as well as you know it, what are the prospects for this administration addressing some of these issues that contribute to the negative perception that its neighbors have of it and that Mexicans themselves have of it?

JOHNSON: Well, we look at big cities in the United States that have gone through crime waves in attempts to clean it up, like New York. And obviously the citizens want to get away from that and they don't want to be known for that. They want their cities to be destinations, and I think Mexicans want that too, and they see an opportunity.

Mexico, fortunately, has pursued some pretty sound economic policies in the past. They're taking on the issue of rule of law. They know they've got to clean up their police, especially at the local level and state levels. They've got to create court systems that work and prisons that can hold prisoners and do the kinds of things that big countries are able to do.

But they've done some of the homework already and they've looked at other nations. They've looked at the United States. They're consulting with their Latin American neighbors and they've got this huge economic opportunity that they've built into their trade policy that will help them. It opens the door to more foreign investment if they can manage to get some of the right policies at home to let their economy grow and to let citizens prosper and have more of a role in the government itself.

MARTIN: Stephen Johnson is the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Americas Program. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Alfredo Corchado is the Mexico Bureau Chief of the Dallas Morning News. He was kind enough to join us on the line from Mexico City.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel.

CORCHADO: Thank you.

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