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Ruben Navarrett Jr / Politics

In Mexico, a Change of Heart?

SAN DIEGO -- How do you say "flip-flopper" in Spanish? South of the border, the answer seems to be: "Enrique Pena Nieto." 

The front-runner in Mexico's July presidential election was against using the military to combat drug cartels before he was in favor of it. Or so it would seem from recent comments by Pena Nieto, who represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and who spent the last several months criticizing the drug war strategy pursued by President Felipe Calderon of the rival National Action Party.

It was all part of an attempt to exploit the angst that many Mexicans feel about a conflict that has now claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people. Polls by Mexican newspapers show that the drug war -- which Calderon launched in December 2006 -- is still unpopular with the Mexican people, even though many also concede its importance.

Pena Nieto has taken aim at the hard-line approach that Calderon has taken against drug traffickers. He has even expressed support for reversing Calderon's policy of using the military to police areas with a lot of crime.

So imagine how surprised many people were -- in both Mexico and the United States -- to hear Pena Nieto declare in a recent news conference his support for using the Mexican military in taking on drug trafficking syndicates. He specifically praised the army and navy for doing a good job of improving security in parts of the country. He also pledged that, if elected, he would maintain a military presence in areas most affected by crime until Mexico has "a police force with enough training and professionalism, as well as adequate equipment."

These are not small things. The Mexican military has been accused of being too heavy-handed and violating human rights in pursuit of drug lords. So any candidate who promises to continue using this weapon to fight the cartels and act as a surrogate police force dealing with street crime risks losing public support -- especially from the anti-war movement and those who worry about preserving civil liberties.

So what is Pena Nieto up to with this about face? I can think of three possibilities.

First, it could be that what we're witnessing is a spasm of machismo. Pena Nietos chief opponent is Josefina Vazquez Mota, who is trying to become the first woman elected president of Mexico. Pena Nieto's new tough guy image could be a subtle attempt to raise doubts about whether Mota has the strength to combat drug violence and keep the country safe.

I wouldn't put it past him. A few months ago, when he was unable to give the price of a package of tortillas -- the equivalent of when U.S. politicians are asked to show they can relate to everyday Americans by citing the price of a loaf of bread -- Pena Nieto tried to defend himself by insisting chauvinistically that he isn't "the woman of the household." He later apologized.

Second, it could be that Pena Nieto recognizes that he has a seriousness deficit to overcome in the minds of many Mexicans. Unable to name the titles of books that have influenced him and having admitted that he was unfaithful to his late wife and fathered two children with different women during his marriage, Pena Nieto is a one-man telenovela.

It is no wonder that many in Mexico's ruling class perceive the politico with the boyish good looks as not having the gravitas to lead Mexico at such a crucial moment. His recent comments could be an attempt to demonstrate that, if elected, he will be a serious president who tackles serious issues.

And third, it could be that Pena Nieto has had an epiphany and figured out that being president of Mexico would be much harder than running for president of Mexico. It may be that some of the tactics that Calderon has used to fight the drug war, while unpleasant to those in the bleachers, are starting to look pretty useful to someone who wants to step into the arena.

Let's hope the latter explanation is the correct one. What Calderon did in engaging this battle against the drug cartels has not been universally popular. But it was morally right and nothing short of heroic. Anyone who wants the privilege of succeeding him had better understand this.

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Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben(at symbol)rubennavarrette.com

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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