Even by the often turbulent standards of Central and Latin America, the inauguration on Saturday of Enrique Peña Nieto as Mexico's new President looked inauspicious. While stating that his goal was to restore peace to the country, the day was marked by protesters lobbing Molotov cocktails as police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Left-wingers and liberals may be appalled by the return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the monolithic party that ruled Mexico autocratically for most of the 20th century, but they are likely to be the least of the new leader's problems. Instead, Mr Nieto will be judged by his record in reining in the drug cartels that have created so much mayhem in Mexico in the past six years, ever since his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, launched all-out war on the drug barons.
Tens of thousands have died in the violence. It has turned whole communities into no-go areas for the police, deepening the divide between the Mexico of the tourist brochures – the Mexico of sun, sea and a respectable annual growth level of four per cent – and the country that lives in the shadow of the cartels. The usual figure given for the past six years is 60,000 drug-related deaths but this is an underestimate, for it does not take into account thousands of others who have gone "missing".
Shockingly, polls suggest that the public is so exhausted that a majority wants the authorities to negotiate with the drug barons instead of continuing to take them on. There is little chance of that happening, because a public surrender of that magnitude would outrage Mexico's giant neighbour to the north.
President Calderon did not lack resolve in tackling the drugs scourge. The problem simply overwhelmed him. The hard truth is that as long as people in the rich West consume large quantities of drugs, gangs will flourish in countries that supply or act as transit routes for them. Mr Nieto cannot escape that dilemma any more than Mr Calderon was able to.Reuse content