After 6 years, 10,000 'disappearances', 50,000 deaths and 1.6m displaced…

Is Mexico's war on drugs over?

An exhausted nation is set to elect a leader willing to deal with the cartels – and the US isn't happy. David Usborne reports from Mexico City

Mexico City

Julia Fuertes digs into her handbag to retrieve a pair of earrings she has made at home. Simple circles of coloured card, they are adorned with photographs of a dashing man cut from celebrity magazines. He looks like an Mexican soap star, except that one day soon he might be running this country.

We are at a rally in a cavernous convention centre in the Santa Fe district of Mexico City for Enrique Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, in Sunday's presidential election. He has just ended a speech filled with pledges for a better future and has descended into the crowd of about 5,000 supporters. Young women and girls press against the barriers wailing his name, desperate to get close. A disco chorus is pumped from loud speakers, "Peña, Peña, Ooh-Ah-Ah". Somewhere at the back a brass band is striking up.

Mexico is on the brink of a leap back to the future filled with risk. For a start, the soap opera label sticks to the 45-year-old Mr Peña a little too easily and not just because he is married to one – his second wife, Angélica Rivera, is known to everyone here as La Gaviota (seagull), a character she played on a steamy day-time drama. A former state governor, he is also light on qualifications. He doesn't speak English and has travelled little. At a book fair last December he struggled to name three titles he had read. He got two: the Bible and a Jeffrey Archer pot-boiler.

Stranger still, though, is his party affiliation. Twelve years ago Mexico broke 70 years of autocratic rule by the PRI and sent Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party, PAN, to Los Pinos, the presidential palace here. In 2006, he was succeeded by outgoing Felipe Calderón also of PAN. To the rest of the world it looked as if the partially discredited PRI had been broken and that Mexico was finally a fully-functioning democracy.

But if the polls are right, the PRI, with Mr Peña at the top of its ticket, is roaring back. Josefina Vázquez Mota of PAN, the anointed successor to Mr Calderón who hoped to be Mexico's first female president, is in third place. The nearest rival is Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist PRD, who came within a squeak of winning in 2006. After a brief surge two weeks ago to within a few points of Mr Peña, even Mr López Obrador may now be behind by a double digit margin.

If Mr Peña wins, debate will rage over how he will govern. The biggest worry of some, including the US, is that he will relax the bloody war on the drug trafficking that was launched by President Calderón when he came to office in 2006, and make deals with the main cartels as previous PRI presidents were accused of doing.

What millions of Mexicans crave, aside from jobs, is security on the streets. Since Mr Calderón launched his war against the drugs kingpins and sent the army in to help a mostly ineffectual and corrupt federal police force, as many as 50,000 lives have been lost and Mexicans are tired of the bloodshed.

Mr Peña's campaign all but admits that his preferred strategy when it comes to challenging the heads of the cartels is negotiation rather than following President Calderón's approach: "It's not that we diminish the importance of going after the heads of the cartels," a Peña spokesman, Sergio Roman, tells The Independent, "but first and foremost it's about regaining control of the streets." The Calderón strategy "has not worked," he adds. "When you chop off the high heads you get the hydra effect, and suddenly you have seven new heads."

If there is nostalgia for the old days of PRI rule it might in part be precisely because of the perception that they and the kingpins were cosy. "Deals?" asks Consuela Erape, 57, a hairdresser at the rally in Santa Fe. "It happened before and the country was a lot quieter. Of course they can, because we want to see calm."

If Mr Peña is elected, many will also want to know how he pulled it off.

The easy answer has to do with a well-funded and slick PRI campaign and the candidate's sex appeal. Ms Fuertes, who describes herself as an actress and screenwriter, admits that's a factor but says there is more. "He has good looks, but that's not really it. He has charisma also. You can be good looking as a candidate and still not connect with the people. That's what he does".

In the last few weeks, though, Mr Peña has battled election-buying allegations. After being heckled at a Mexico City university campus in May and taking shelter in a men's bathroom, he found himself the target of a student movement called Yo Soy 132 – "I am 132", named after the number of those who stood up at the event to show their student cards. Foremost among the movement's allegations is that Televisa, the biggest television broadcaster, has given him biased coverage in return for favours it expects later and advertising dollars from the campaign.

For a moment early this month, Yo Soy 132 appeared to pose a threat to Mr Peña by throwing the support of students behind the López Obrador campaign. Two Sundays ago they staged the biggest protest Mexico City had seen in years – an estimated 100,000 Mexicans marched to the Angel de la Independencia to hang a huge banner that read: "Peña Nieto, this is the reality of Mexico –not Televisa. The people have woken up."

Or maybe not. "I think it has fizzled away now, Mexicans are not naïve, they know when they are being manipulated," a Peña spokesman, Sergio Roman, told The Independent. "The voters understand that his message has always been positive. Mr López Obrador got some momentum from the '132' but he is always against everything, trying to disqualify statistics, the media and other institutions. People don't like that negativity."

As at every one of his rallies, Mr Peña closes his speech here in Santa Fe by signing a pledge undertaking to fund some huge public works project or another. Today, it is about providing better housing and water supplies in a dusty district on the eastern edge of Mexico City. So far he has put his pen to more than 600 of these public works covenants. The slogan on ubiquitous Peña billboards here is simple: "You know I'm going to deliver".

But Ms Fuertes, the actress, admits she still has qualms about voting PRI again and pays homage to Mr Calderón for tackling corruption in Mexico. He has also helped create an economy that is growing at over 4 per cent, something the neighbouring US can only dream of. By some estimates Mexico is on course to be the world's fifth largest economy by 2050. But clearly she is enamoured of Mr Peña and finds herself torn between him and Ms Vázquez Mota of PAN. "I am going to say a Hail Mary when I vote and ask the Lord how to mark the ballot."

Mexico vs the cartels

2006 Felipe Calderón wins presidential elections and sends troops and police to stem rising violence in western Mexico

2007 Calderón makes a 23-ton cocaine bust. Violence escalates and 3,000 people are killed

2008 About 6,300 people across Mexico are killed in drugs violence

January 2010 Police capture kingpin Teodoro García Simental, known for having rivals dissolved in acid

April 2011 Mass graves containing 193 bodies are found in Tamaulipas

August 2011 A casino in Monterrey is torched leaving 52 people dead

May 2012 Cartel leader arrested over the killing of 49 people whose mutilated bodies were dumped on a road in Nuevo León state

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