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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In less than a month, Mexico will hold presidential elections and Mexicans want the winner's first priority to be reducing violence. Warring drug cartels have killed more than 50,000 people in the last five and a half years, disappeared thousands more and turned some cities into lawless zones.

The leading candidate has said that, if elected, he will change the current unpopular strategy of an all out war against the cartels, though he denies that he'll make deals with drug lords.

NPR's John Burnett has the story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The next president of Mexico has his work cut out for him in cities like Nuevo Laredo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Don't be deceived by the music on the streets here. This is not a happy place. This is a haunted place. It's one of the latest battlegrounds between Mexico's two super cartels, the Zetas and the Sinaloans. Last month, authorities discovered nine tortured bodies hanging from an overpass here and 14 human heads left in a jumbo ice chest in front Nuevo Laredo's city hall.

Abraham de Anda is a well-groomed waiter passing a balmy morning on a park bench not far from where the grisly cooler was found.

ABRAHAM DE ANDA: (Through translator) All of this destroys an image of the city. It's frightening the people, frightening the children. What happens when a child hears this? What kind of future do they imagine? A future filled with blood, terror, danger, massacres?

BURNETT: It gets worse. In the last month, narcos machine-gunned a local university and the leading newspaper and car-bombed the hotel where the military is billeted. Nuevo Laredo is now patrolled by military police after the corrupt local police force was disbanded last summer. Shops are closing and residents who can afford to are fleeing to Texas.

ANDA: (Through translator) We hope the new government finds a way to stop this, to stop the narco trafficking, stop the kidnapping, stop the extortion. The primary function of the government is to protect its people.

BURNETT: The frontrunner in the race for the Mexican presidency, Enrique Pena Nieto, says he'll do just that if he wins, but the popular former governor of the state of Mexico says he would change the focus of the current security strategy. He told the Associated Press recently his central theme would be to reduce homicide, kidnapping and extortion, crimes that vex Mexicans much more than drug trafficking.

Pena Nieto has not provided many specifics beyond proposing the creation of a national police force to replace local corrupt departments such as Nuevo Laredo's. He said in a debate last month he would leave in place the 45,000 military troops the current president has deployed to violence-plagued states.

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO: (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: He said the military cannot return to their barracks until conditions improve in these states. Pena Nieto's strategy to target criminal violence over pursuing and arresting capos might be more popular than the current approach.

CARLOS SEOANE: People don't care about the drugs. People don't care about the narcos. What makes the violence related associated to the drugs?

BURNETT: Carlos Seoane is vice president for the security firm Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations in Mexico. He says there's a name for this strategy: crime management.

SEOANE: So what has to be the message? If you go over this line, we will fight you, I mean, until we practically eliminate you. We can do business as long as there are no killings, no shootings, everything quiet like it was in the past.

BURNETT: Outgoing president Felipe Calderon declared war on organized crime when he took office in December 2006. Since then, his security forces have captured or killed an impressive number of most wanted traffickers, but every time he tries to decapitate a cartel, underlings scramble for power, the multi-headed hydra survives and the violence seems to get worse.

Writer and historian Enrique Krauze says the Mexican public has grown weary.

ENRIQUE KRAUZE: I've become convinced that his security strategy was wrong. I mean, it was like simply the charge of an army, like shock and awe and look what had happened.

BURNETT: There's also distrust of the drug warriors. Last month in its annual human rights report, the U.S. State Department listed instances of unlawful killings, forced disappearances and torture at the hands of Mexican government security forces, as well as the narcos.

Also last month, the Mexican government arrested three high ranking army generals under suspicion of using their positions to aid and abet drug trafficking.

Despite the missteps, Washington remains a big supporter of Calderon's hit-them-hard strategy. The State Department has sent Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars in aircraft, training and law enforcement equipment.

DAVID GADDIS: The next president - it'll be very important that they understand there has to be a continued effort to attack the supply side of these drug cartels.

BURNETT: David Gaddis is former chief of enforcement for the Drug Enforcement Administration with deep experience in Latin America. He now runs Global Protection Solutions, an international security consulting firm.

GADDIS: Unfortunate byproduct being violence has been viewed, you know, as a huge negative by the Mexican people and that's understandable, yet I think, if we look in general terms, the success of the administration has been that the drug cartels are much weaker today than they were five, six years ago.

BURNETT: Jorge Carrasco covers national security and justice for the respected news weekly Proceso. He would argue that Calderon's strategy of taking down kingpins has helped the DEA more than it has helped Mexico.

JORGE CARRASCO: (Through translator) Something has to be done against the narco traffickers, without a doubt, but you don't put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it and that's what has happened with Felipe Calderon. Six years later, the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas cartel continue to exist. La Familia Michoacana changed names. Narco trafficking in Mexico enjoys absolute good health.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: This narco ballad puts into song what some see as the good old days of drug trafficking. That was a time when Pena Nieto's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ran Mexico, kept the drug lords in line and took a cut of the action.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Again, historian Enrique Krauze.

KRAUZE: The corrupt system of the PRI got along very well with the underworld. Some people say that the system of the PRI was corrupt. No, no. It was corruption itself.

BURNETT: Around Mexico City, the word on the street is that, if the PRI comes to power again, it will negotiate with the narcos, an idea the candidate rejects.

A 36-year-old heavy equipment operator named Israel Quiroz takes a break in the shade beside the monument to the revolution.

ISRAEL QUIROZ: (Foreign language spoken).

BURNETT: If the PRI wins, they'll give free reign again to the narcos, he says. They're pure bandits in the PRI, pure shameless rats.

One thing is certain: When the new president takes office on December 1st, Mexicans, exhausted and dispirited by the cartel free-for-all, want change and they want it fast.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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