Supporters carry a giant mask of Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate… (John Moore / Getty Images )
The next president of Mexico will face one question that is more important than any other: How can the government reduce the devastating violence that has overtaken the country and claimed more than 50,000 lives in just six years?
That's the question on voters' minds as they go to the polls in Sunday's election. Yet during the three-month campaign, none of the candidates satisfactorily answered it. All four presidential hopefuls repudiated President Felipe Calderon's all-out war on the drug cartels, but they have declined to engage in a serious debate on what steps they would take to reestablish control, improve public safety or weaken the grip of the narco-traffickers on the country.
The front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, whose slogan is change, has vowed repeatedly to reduce the violence but has given little indication of how he will go about it, other than to hire the former head ofColombia's National Police as his main security advisor. Presumably, he hopes retired Gen. Oscar Naranjo will replicate the success he had in Colombia dismantling cartels. Maybe Peña Nieto also hopes to quell fears that his party will resort to its old tactics and strike a deal with drug gangs in exchange for peace.
SERIES: Mexico under siege
Running second is Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who represents a coalition of leftist parties. Lopez Obrador also promises change, especially for the poor. Like his rival, though, he has failed to explain how his strategy will stop the bodies from piling up.
Mexico's troubles have no easy fix. Corruption, drug violence, weak institutions and disregard for the rule of law are pervasive. Whichever candidate is elected must recognize that public safety isn't the military's job. Soldiers are no replacement for an honest, professional police force. The next president should increase the size of Mexico's federal police — a relatively new force that currently stands at 40,000 officers and that, unlike the state and local police, isn't saddled with a reputation for corruption and incompetence. Nor is it feared by the poor.
And though Calderon's war against the cartels has so far failed to cripple them, his pursuit of judicial and constitutional reforms made sense. His successor should push to ensure that those changes, including moving from an inquisitorial judicial system to an adversarial one, are achieved.
The winner of Sunday's elections will inherit the thorny problems that frustrated Calderon. But the new president will have lessons to draw from that can help guide Mexico out of its bloody war.