Why New Mexican President Peña Nieto Matters to U.S. Security
Our election day may be months away, but Mexicans went to the polls Sunday, July 1 and elected the young face of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Enrique Peña Nieto. Unhappy with what they perceived as little progress after two successive presidential terms of the National Action Party (PAN), Mexicans opted for the telegenic Peña Nieto who has promised to build a national police force to tackle the crime and drug violence and to liberalize Mexico’s energy sector.
The election of Peña Nieto is important to Americans for several reasons – the first of which involves security concerns and an increasingly explosive situation along our 2,000 mile-long Southern border. And there is reason for concern. A number of observers in and out of the U.S. government fear Peña Nieto and the PRI political apparatus behind him may weaken the previous administration’s tough line against the drug cartels in an effort to bring down the violence which has claimed the lives of over 50,000 (some statistics are closer to 60,000) Mexicans in the past six years.
Current President Felipe Calderon has taken an unrelenting stance against the cartels and drug lords and brought in the Mexican military to assist in the fight. Since Calderon’s offensive against the drug cartels began in 2006, there have been gruesome deaths of journalists and innocent civilians and a significant increase in the violence between and among cartels vying for territory. Cities like Monterrey in Northern Mexico, which were long considered safe, are now cartel battlegrounds.
The new government will likely outline a strategy designed to strengthen Mexico’s law enforcement institutions while reducing kidnapping and murder rates. But it is important that the return of the PRI does not mean a return to deal cutting between PRI party bosses and cartel kingpins. Even if these old style practices bring down the level of violence, this is no long term solution for Mexico. Security concerns will be Peña Nieto’s biggest challenge, influencing his approach to other issues. This makes it all the more crucial that the Obama administration continues with its robust diplomacy and bilateral assistance to Mexico to ensure that Mexico does not backslide when it comes to fighting crime and corruption and defending human rights.
Already, President Obama has done much in the last four years to strengthen U.S.-Mexican cooperation in areas of security, namely through the Mérida Initiative. Through this assistance program, which Obama significantly enhanced in 2010 with a renewed commitment of approximately $400 million a year, we provide Mexico with equipment, technical assistance, and training to civilian law institutions. Despite their very legitimate concerns that our penchant for drugs and guns fuels the violence in Mexico – and setting aside the blundered Operation Fast and Furious – the Mexican people trust President Obama and believe he is a valuable partner in facing these security challenges. Indeed, a June 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that Mexicans have a much higher approval rating of Obama than they did of George W. Bush who they believe abandoned Mexico after 9/11, and that currently, three quarters of the population favor U.S. assistance in the drug war.
The second reason Americans should be paying attention to the election of Peña Nieto has to do with energy. Here we have a great opportunity rather than a concern. During his campaign, Peña Nieto made a promise to make private investment in the oil and gas industry possible. The industry was nationalized in 1938, and since then, it has been dominated by the state-owned oil company Pemex. Because of the lack of private investment and competition, capacity and production have been lower and less efficient. Allowing for private-sector investment in this area would open up the Mexican energy market to many U.S. companies, allowing for the possibility of increased energy integration between our two countries. Already, Mexico is our second largest supplier of oil behind Canada.
While previous presidents have talked about opening up the Mexican energy sector before, Peña Nieto has a better chance of actually affecting this change than others because of the likely support he will have in the Mexican Congress. Unlike his PAN predecessors, Felipe Calderon and Vicente Fox, Peña Nieto should have enough support in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate to make the necessary changes to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution to allow for private investment and incentive-based contracts.
Whether they go for easy changes or more sweeping reforms, such as floating Pemex on the stock exchange, will depend on how comfortable a majority they have. Peña Nieto has said that “Mexico has the potential to be an energy power,” and with support from PRI legislators, members of the Green Party, and PAN representatives, who support opening up the energy sector, he might just make that happen.
The Obama administration will embrace Peña Nieto’s energy reform plans. Just this past April, President Obama met with the leaders of Mexico and Canada specifically to discuss energy security and cooperation in North America. Together, they promised to expand energy trade across borders and to develop joint projects aimed at achieving economic growth and creating new clean energy jobs.
On security and energy issues, we have a lot riding on Mexico. Good thing President Obama knows this and is ready to work with the new Mexican President in ways that will benefit both our peoples.
Amanda C. Mattingly is a Truman Security Fellow.