Stakes are high as Mexico's new President bids to end the bloodshed caused by drug conflict

Enrique Peña Nieto takes office with calls to pursue the drug barons and protect the public

As he is sworn into office as Mexico's new president today, Enrique Peña Nieto may privately wonder if his campaign promises to slash the death toll from his country's ferocious drug conflict can ever be fulfilled.

Despair at the bloodbath is what drove millions of Mexicans to vote for Mr Peña Nieto and his reviled Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose previous corruption-riddled, 71-year rule ended in 2000 after it was finally forced to stop rigging elections.

The telegenic 46-year-old former state governor has vowed not to enter unwritten deals with the cartels – as the PRI is widely thought to have done in the 1990s – and to carry on the pursuit of the drug barons. "We will continue working strongly to combat drugs and insecurity with innovative policies so that consumption [within Mexico] falls," said Emilio Lozoya, widely tipped for a cabinet post.

Mr Peña Nieto's proposed reforms include the creation of a new 40,000-strong paramilitary police force, a major increase in the numbers of the existing federal police, and centralising security decision-making in the hands of his interior minister.

Yet many in Mexico regard that as rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. According to the national statistical office, INEGI, 72 per cent of Mexicans believe the security situation will remain the same or worsen.

"He will change the rhetoric of the security strategy, although operationally I think little will change," said Carlos Ramírez, an analyst with Eurasia political risk consultants.

That may be because the primary drivers of the violence – US demand for illicit drugs and the cartels' arsenal of high-powered firearms bought legally north of the Rio Grande – remain outside the president's control.

Yet one important clue to Mr Peña Nieto's strategy to reduce the bloodshed is his plan to take off the streets the 45,000 soldiers and 17,000 marines that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, of the conservative National Action Party, used to combat the drug gangs.

Many analysts believe that removing the military from the equation may, on its own, be enough to see the violence subside.

Mr Calderón, who will now take up a teaching post at Harvard University, took that desperate measure as a response to the drug-lords' ability to buy off corrupt police of even the highest rank.

And, unlike the police, the army and navy were able to outmatch the firepower of the cartels. As a result, the death toll surged and some 60,000 Mexicans perished in the conflict during Mr Calderón's six-year term.

Yet the militarisation of counter-narcotics policy is widely viewed as a failure, with the armed forces being linked to repeated human rights abuses. Meanwhile, the cocaine arriving in the United States via Mexico during Mr Calderón's term is thought to have increased by more than 90 per cent.

Ultimately, Mr Calderón, who staked his presidency on winning his full-frontal assault on the traffickers, ended up urging the White House to consider decriminalising cocaine and other drugs.

Mr Peña Nieto has already ruled out taking a similar position. He is also keen to switch the focus onto economic issues, including his proposed shake-ups of the tax code and energy sector. Mexico's economy, already the 14th largest in the world, is expected to grow by about four per cent this year, and within a decade will overtake Brazil as Latin America's largest.

Yet many remain excluded from that rapid growth, which is fuelled largely by manufacturing. While telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim is the world's richest person, 46 per cent of Mexicans – 52 million people – remain mired in poverty.

Pemex, the creaking state oil monopoly that provides 40 per cent of government revenues, has seen its output fall 26 per cent since 2004 to 2.5 million barrels of crude oil per day. Mr Peña Nieto wants to open it to private investment but without relinquishing government control of an industry whose nationalisation in the 1930s remains an almost mythical source of national pride.

As he moves on those different fronts, he will also have to tread the fine rhetorical line between paying frequent homage to the PRI's populist roots in the Mexican revolution while defending the party's 1990s conversion to the free market. As if all that were not enough, Mr Peña Nieto also lacks a congressional majority and faces widespread scepticism that his clean-cut good looks are matched by political savvy.

As he takes his first steps as president in the coming days, 112 million Mexicans will be watching, hopefully – and not a little anxiously – for signs that this young politician is up to the Herculean challenges his country faces.

Drug wars by numbers

60,000

Estimated number of people killed in drug violence during Felipe Calderon’s six years in power

$2bn

The amount the US channelled to Calderon’s government to tackle narcotics

25,000

Number of people estimated missing during the last six years

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?