Amidst ongoing controversy surrounding the results of last Sunday’s presidential election in Mexico, the declared winner of the contest, Enrique Peña Nieto, is unambiguously organizing to take over the government come December. The election was marked by claims of fraud, irregularities, and manipulation by the major media in favor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country for much of the twentieth century, and sponsored Peña Nieto’s run for the presidency. While all of these allegations are likely true to an extent, they ultimately fail to convince. And while the opposition continues to protest Peña Nieto’s victory, the president-elect has moved on.

Enrique Peña Nieto

Enrique Peña Nieto (Photo: World Economic Forum / Flickr)

Peña Nieto has been assaulting American media with a public relations campaign intended to signal confidence, competence, and sensitivity to American concerns with what goes on in Mexico domestically.  Chief among these concerns, clearly, is the country’s security failure since its transition from authoritarianism over a decade ago. In the past six years, particularly, the country has suffered from President Felipe Calderón’s use of the military to go after Mexico’s trafficking “kingpins.” Far from achieving progress, Calderón’s strategy has left the country noticeably worse off. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000 to 67,000 people have been murdered since Calderón took office. Mexico’s jumble of local, state, and federal security agencies have been rendered useless by graft; and the power of the so-called “Mexican cartels” seems to have metastasized within and beyond Mexico’s borders.

Peña Nieto has promised that his administration will not persist with the failed policies of the Calderón era, though he has remained elusive in outlining the specifics of change.  This past Thursday, however, his special advisor on combating drug traffickers, former director of police in Colombia, General Oscar Naranjo, sketched out a basic plan of what the next administration intends to do. Despite facing questions about his own resistance to corruption, not to mention the allegations against his immediate subordinates, Naranjo’s plan makes sense—forget the kingpins, get control of mid-level operators responsible for the lion’s share of violence, and focus on keeping local communities secure. Of course, this approach is not without its problems. But it compares quite favorably against competing ideas which generally emphasize continued, and bolstered, military action throughout the country.

The president-elect has also changed course, albeit slightly, on his position with respect to drug decriminalization.  In an interview with the PBS NewsHour last Tuesday, Peña Nieto argued that he will welcome debate on the issue of drug legalization and regulation in Mexico, a move advocates claim would deflate widening illicit profit margins, reduce cartel violence, and offer the state an additional source of tax revenue.

This rhetorical change is not insignificant. Up to now, Peña Nieto has been vague in detailing how his approach to battling the country’s cartels would meaningfully depart from the strategy employed by his predecessor. President Felipe Calderon made fighting the drug war a cornerstone of his presidency, and he wasn’t shy in bringing to bear the full weight of his military to secure victory. The results have not only been shocking—tens of thousands dead and myriads more paralyzed by fear and fatigue—but they seem to have done little to curb cartel influence. While some groups have been weakened or put out of business altogether, other syndicates have deepened their foothold domestically, expanded their power across borders and diversified their operations into other economic sectors. For his part, Peña Nieto has acknowledged that violence must be reduced, but has resisted rejecting outright calls to order the military back to the barracks.

By arguing that the issue of legalization should be on the table for debate, Peña Nieto is signaling that he’s prepared to move Mexico in the direction of its regional neighbors on the issue. At April’s Summit of the Americas gathering in Cartegena, Colombia, Alma Guillermoprieto writes that “for the first time the leaders at the summit openly debated—although behind closed doors—whether the best way to stop the rolling disaster was an end to the US-sponsored and -dictated war on drugs, and at least partial legalization, or regulation, of the drug trade.” While the region’s leaders succeeded in making their case to President Barack Obama, however, the message was swamped by the media’s focus on an embarrassing sex scandal involving Obama’s Secret Service detail and some hookers. Nevertheless, the takeaway from Cartegena was clear—Latin American leaders no longer accept the American line on drug policy.

It’s important to underscore that Peña Nieto won’t quickly arrive at a change of heart on the question of legalization. While acknowledging that state policy has been a dramatic failure under Calderon, Peña Nieto made sure to stop short of staking out a clear position one way or the other. “I’m not saying we should legalize. But we should debate in Congress, in the hemisphere and especially the United States should participate in this broad debate.”

He won’t find a willing partner to the north. The Obama administration flatly rejected calls for legalization in Cartegena, and shows little willingness to even entertain the idea in theory. For one thing, there’s just too much money to be made in the war on drugs.  Billions of dollars each year are spent by the government on influential private contractors tasked with the day-to-day dirty work of fighting drugs. The Los Angeles Times reported last spring that the “majority of US counter-narcotics contracts,” some $3 billion in total, “are awarded to five companies: DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT and ARINK.” And the money keeps growing. “Counter-narcotics contract spending increased 32% over the five-year period, from $482 million in 2005 to $635 million in 2009. DynCorp, based in Falls Church, Va., received the largest total, $1.1 billion.” Politically speaking, legalization is risky and offers few short-term rewards that would be of interest to any sitting president tethered to his or her party’s hopes for the future. Therefore, it falls very low on the list of presidential priorities.

But it may not matter. The violence smothering Mexican politics and society has grown untenable, the state’s reaction impossible to justify. Even as American pressure continues to mount in favor of drug prohibition, other forces in the neighborhood are gathering steam, forces that reject business as usual in the war against drugs. And, after all, it’s all in the timing. At the very moment when fresh ideas and the political will to animate them are at a premium, each is being offered by the regional consensus that legalization might provide relief from the crippling power of trafficking cartels, if not escape.

Cross-posted at Warscapes magazine.