Nervous US calls for no let-up in war on drugs as Mexico elects new president


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The Independent US

With the ballots barely counted after Mexico's landmark presidential elections on Sunday, voices in Washington were already prodding the winner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), not to relax the crushing war against the drug cartels started six years ago by the outgoing President Felipe Calderon.

Preliminary counts suggested that the telegenic Mr Peña Nieto had won the contest but by a slimmer margin than many had expected, with 38 per cent of the vote – six points ahead of his closest rival, the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The candidate for the ruling PAN conservative party trailed in third place.

Mr Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost to Mr Calderon in 2006, was not ready to concede last night pending a legal review of the count. The vote spells possible rehabilitation for the PRI, which was ousted from the presidential palace in 2000 after essentially running Mexico like a one-party state for much of the last century. Mr Peña Nieto built his campaign on a promise that the old PRI, known for corruption, self-enrichment and cronyism, was gone for good.

Reassuring Mexicans and the world that he means it will be among his biggest first challenges. "We're a new generation, there is no return to the past," he said in a victory speech. "It's time to move on from the country we are to the Mexico we deserve and that we can be... where every Mexican writes his own success story."

Scepticism remains, however, not least in Washington. The United States has been an enthusiastic backer of Mr Calderon's push to cripple the cartels in his country, even as it has cost 55,000 lives. Mr Peña Nieto has spoken of moving away from a tight focus on the cartels themselves towards protecting civilians from the violence.

"While he has stated publicly [that] he is committed to the security of his country against the drug cartels, I am hopeful that he will not return to the PRI party of the past, which was corrupt and had a history of turning a blind eye to the drug cartels," said Michael McCaul, a Republican Congressman from Texas who sits on a Homeland Security committee on border security. He had earlier characterised the PRI as "the party that has played nice with the cartels".

It was partly with an eye towards Washington that Mr Peña Nieto promised late in his campaign to appoint General Oscar Naranjo, of Colombia, who has been credited with finally bringing down that country's one-time super-baron Pablo Escobar, as his special adviser on drugs policy.

Mr Calderon, who was barred by the constitution from seeking a second term, saw the fortunes of his party dip in part because of slow progress on the economy during his six years in office.