Dem: New Mexican president won’t cut drug cartels any slack

The Obama administration and border-district lawmakers on Monday hailed the election of centrist candidate Enrique Peña Nieto as Mexico's new president despite earlier concerns that he might curtail his country's bloody war against the drug cartels.

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) was with the candidate at his headquarters when the results came in Sunday, having met the then-governor of Mexico state during his visit to Washington in May 2011. Cuellar said his conversations over the weekend with the president-elect, the U.S. ambassador and a Mexican general close to Peña Nieto have convinced him that the new president won't cut the cartels any slack.

“That was actually my first question,” Cuellar said. “Now that I've got to know him, I feel like he's not going to do that.”

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President Obama called Peña Nieto on Monday to congratulate him after early results showed him coming in first in a three-way race, winning about 38 percent of the vote with more than 90 percent of ballots counted. Final results are expected Wednesday.

The two leaders “reaffirmed the close bilateral partnership the United States and Mexico enjoy based on mutual respect, shared responsibility, and the deep connections between our people” according to a White House read-out of the call.

Also Monday, a State Department spokeswoman said the administration expects the fight agains the drug cartels to continue.

“We’re not going to get ahead of a formal seating of a new government and predict changes in policy one way or the other,” State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing, “but we are committed to working in partnership with Mexico to meet the evolving challenges posed by transnational criminal organizations, and we expect that that great cooperation is going to continue with the Peña Nieto administration when it is seated.”

Rep. Quico Canseco (R-Texas), whose vast rural district shares an 800-mile border with Mexico, also sounded hopeful. 

“I was pleased to see that yesterday’s elections in Mexico were conducted peacefully and without incident,” Canseco said in a statement. “Mexico is a vital partner of the United States and their stability and well-being are important for both countries.

“I enjoyed working with President Felipe Calderon to advance the mutual interests of our nations; I hope President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will continue the commitment to working with us to secure our shared border, maintain the hard-hitting strategy against the drug cartels, and continue investing in economic and trade relations between our two nations.”

Drug violence has dominated the headlines on both sides of the border since Calderon declared war on the cartels upon gaining office in 2006. Tens of thousands of people have died since then and Peña Nieto and other candidates promised during the campaign to tamp down the violence.

Such pronouncements worried U.S. lawmakers and government officials, giving his Institutional Revolutionary Party's reputation for looking the other way on organized crime during an uninterrupted, corruption-plague 70-year run in power until 2000. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) reminded lawmakers of that history during a committee hearing last month during which he accused Peña Nieto of a “reversion” to the old policy of “turning a blind eye to the cartels.”

Cuellar told The Hill that within days the candidate had sent people to Sensenbrenner's office to clarify his position.

“Less than a week before the election, he's sending his people up here,” Cuellar said. “So I think he's paying a lot of attention to what we say here in the United States.”

He went on to describe his experience standing in the campaign's “war room” on election night with 50 or so close staff and family as a “big deal” that allowed him to meet the president-elect's staff.

“It was a pretty good experience,” Cuellar said. “I got to talk to his right-hand person and a lot of people. Probably some of those folks will be in his Cabinet.”

Cuellar said he's also talked to Peña Nieto about his proposal to open up the state oil company, Pemex, to foreign investment. He said Texas energy firms are already showing interest.

“I have talked to him several times, and his intent is to go ahead and modernize Pemex,” Cuellar said.

He said the president-elect told him that he's confident he can get the labor unions – a core constituency – on board.

“I think that's going to be a great opportunity for American companies,” Cuellar said.

The congressman from Laredo, the third-largest port in the United States, went on to say he visits Mexico several times a year and is confident the second-place finisher, leftist Manuel Lopez Obrador, will concede defeat and avoid a repeat of the weeks of protest that followed the much-closer 2006 election.

“I think it's going to be different” this time around, Cuellar said, based on the concession speech by Calderon on behalf of the incumbent National Action Party, which came in third, and the fact that he was ahead of Lopez Obrador by about 10 percentage points.