MEXICO CITY – Enrique Pena Nieto, a 46-year-old career politician and member of Mexico’s old-guard political party, assumed the presidency Saturday of a nation reeling from drug-related violence, promising his fellow citizens that “the primary focus of my government is to achieve a Mexico at peace.”
By that measure, his term did not start well. Outside of the lower house of Congress, where Pena Nieto was given the presidential sash by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, protesters clashed with police, lobbing Molotov cocktails and rocks. Authorities responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. A number of police and protesters were injured, some of them seriously.
Many of the demonstrators were left-leaning students and activists concerned about the return to power of Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico as a virtual one-party state for much of the 20th century.
But in a later speech in an elegant courtyard of Mexico’s National Palace, Pena Nieto pledged to respect the social and governmental forces, from opposition lawmakers to a more aggressive national media that will attempt to keep any authoritarian tendencies on the part of the PRI in check in the coming years.
“I will respect each and every one of the voices of society,” he said.
Street protests probably will be the least of Pena Nieto’s problems. The goal of peace eluded Calderon of the conservative National Action Party throughout his six-year term, when he launched an assault against the nation’s drug cartels shortly after his own inauguration. Tens of thousands died in the crackdown. But the cartels remained, and the flow of drugs to the U.S. was not impeded.
As a result, the new president inherits a troubled nation deeply divided about how to proceed with its drug war: A recent poll showed that 51 percent of respondents wanted the government to negotiate with the drug cartels, while 49 percent said the government should continue to challenge them with arms.
On Saturday, Pena Nieto did little to clarify his internal security strategy, which he previously had said would focus on violent crimes such as murder and extortion that affect the everyday lives of Mexicans.
But he was candid in describing the twin failures of violence and inequality that have hurt Mexico’s international reputation and quality of life, even as the country has benefited in recent years from a stable economy.
“Mexico hasn’t achieved the advances that its population demands and deserves,” he told an audience that included Vice President Joe Biden. “Insecurity and violence have robbed peace and liberty from various communities in our national territory.”