Newly elected President Enrique Pena Nieto says he will continue combatting all illegal drug production and trafficking in Mexico, including marijuana, despite its legalization in two U.S. states and liberalized use for medical purposes in others.
In an interview with The Associated Press late Monday on goals for his new administration, Pena Nieto was asked if votes to legalize recreational use of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado would make him rethink Mexico's drug-war policy.
"The short answer is no," said Pena Nieto, who added that he remains personally opposed to legalization. "My government will continue mounting a real fight against the trafficking of marijuana and all other drugs."
He has proposed focusing on reducing violence in Mexico rather than capturing top drug lords, a change from his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. Many have viewed that as a signal that as long as drug gangs don't attack civilians, they would be left alone.
Murder, extortion and kidnapping skyrocketed under Calderon, with some estimates reaching 60,000 drug-related killings during his six-year term. Top Pena Nieto campaign aide Luis Videgaray, now secretary of the treasury, said in November that the U.S. legalization votes would complicate Mexico's anti-drug efforts.
But Pena Nieto said his government "in no way will abandon the fight." He said he is committed to putting up a united front against organized crime, pushing for better coordination among local, state and federal police forces and completing the overhaul of Mexico's broken and corrupt justice system. Calderon tried both with very little success.
Pena Nieto said he believes he will get better results by integrating prevention, investment and enforcement programs.
"I'll put them all on the same plane, there won't be one priority over the others," he said. "We're not going to put all our marbles in the combat arena."
The new president, whose inauguration on Dec. 1 brought back Mexico's longtime-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party after a 12-year hiatus, has enjoyed a considerable honeymoon in his first week in the rough-and-tumble halls of congress. He got leaders of the top two opposing parties to sign his Pact for Mexico, a list of five themes and 95 promises that he has set out to complete during his six-year term, including fiscal, educational and social security reforms. Many lack details and veer little from what Calderon tried to accomplish.
But Pena Nieto earlier Monday proposed an ambitious plan for the government to retake the public education system, now run by a closed and autocratic teachers' union and its long-time leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, often called the most powerful woman in Mexico and a symbol of the country's corrupt, old-style politics.
He also announced that his administration would reduce the salaries of middle- and high-ranking federal managers by 5 percent.
Pena Nieto said he would make no promises for his first 100 days in office. He has yet to flesh out other reforms, including opening up Mexico's telecommunications industry, and bringing new private investment to Mexico's crucial but creaking state-owned oil industry.
"I've set my horizon for a year," he said, "... that in a year's time we can achieve agreements and consensus, if not unanimous then at least among the majority for the constitutional and legal changes necessary to put the reforms in place."
The president added that he never set a goal of reducing crime by half in the first year, contrary to widely circulated reports.
He has laid out a progressive and in many ways populist agenda, but surrounded himself with foreign-educated technocrats and old-guard figures from his party, known as the PRI, which ruled Mexico with an autocratic style for 71 years before being voted out of office in 2000.
That leaves many to question what direction his administration will ultimately take.
"The basic question is, how will a conservative cabinet move a progressive agenda forward?" economist and sociologist Jorge Zepeda Patterson wrote in a weekend opinion piece for the newspaper El Universal. "Along the way, the authoritarian tendencies of the political operatives could win out and end up distorting, disguising or emptying out the content of the democratic proposals."
Pena Nieto said the multi-party pact and political cooperation in passing a labor reform measure even before he took office signal a new optimism for the country.
"That proves there's greater will and commitment," he said, "a political disposition on the part of all forces to really push the changes Mexico needs to unleash its potential for growth."
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.