Mexican President Shifts Focus From Drugs To Progress

Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has been in office for three months, and despite his claims that he's fighting drug violence with a new strategy, there are no signs the situation is any better. The president prefers to focus on Mexico's economic potential and has been touring the country, giving pep talks wherever he goes.

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Mexico's new president has been in office for three months now. And despite his stated goal to fight drug violence with a new strategies, there are no signs the situation is any better. And he prefers to focus on other things; Mexico's economic potential, for one.

As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, he's kept up a busy travel schedule at home and abroad, while singing Mexico's praises.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On a recent presidential trip to the Pacific State of Sinaloa, a smiling Enrique Pena Nieto gets a warm greeting from hundreds of farmers and businessmen gathered in front of a picture perfect corn field.

(APPLAUSE)

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Pena is in the state promoting its agricultural industry.

PENA NIETO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: With an ease not often seen on the campaign trail, Pena tells the crowd have faith, have confidence in me, your public servant and the government. Together, we will work to bring progress and development to Sinaloa.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: This is Pena's standard pep speech. In his first 100 days in office, he's given one in almost every state. He's the country's non-stop cheerleader. He's even taken out radio and TV ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: The stylized black and white spots show a man jumping back and forth between famous Mexico City landmarks, while the narrator says we are all going to take Mexico where it deserves to go: To a better future.

Pena Nieto's feel good campaign has been working. He's been praised in the international press with glowing reports of Mexico poised to become the economic Aztec tiger of Latin America. Pena Nieto's own popularity is growing too.

What you don't hear him talk much about is the country's violent drug war, which is still as vicious and deadly as before he took office. The same day he was talking about corn and shrimp in Culiacan, home of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, seven people were kidnapped and murdered in the state, four of them local policemen.

On the airport runway after touching back down in Mexico City, I asked President Pena why he doesn't talk more about controlling crime in the country.

(Spanish spoken)

PENA NIETO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: It is a subject that the government must address, Pena says. But he adds it's not the only one to talk about. He says his government plans to create a new 10,000-strong national police force. But that will take time to form. And in the meantime, Pena's strategy remains largely the same as his predecessor, which left the military in charge of fighting drug trafficker and a hefty death toll, more than 60,000 in the past six years.

Repeated requests to speak with Pena Nieto's national security advisor were denied.

Denise Dresser, a political analyst, says Pena is masterful with the media.

DENISE DRESSER: He's managed to change the topic and change the conversation, so that the headlines every day are no longer decapitations, the war on drugs.

KAHN: Instead they are about progress and optimism, she says. Pena has had some successes out of the gate. He wrangled the political pact with opposition parties to reform the monopolistic energy and telecommunications sectors. He passed a huge overhaul of the nation's failing education system. Then the next day, arrested the long untouchable head of the teacher's union on organized crime charges. That move alone gave him a huge popularity boost.

Public opinion pollster Ulysses Beltran says Pena Nieto's ratings are in the high 50s - not bad considering he was elected with just 38 percent of the vote.

ULYSSES BELTRAN: He has very good ratings in general, but the Mexican public is now fortunately hard to please.

KAHN: Mostly, Beltran says, because the recent economic gains in Mexico have yet to trickle down to the majority of the population. More than 60 percent of the public say they are not optimistic about Mexico's economic future.

BELTRAN: A critical, skeptical public is better, and that is very good for democracy.

KAHN: And he adds, isn't that a good thing?

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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