Mexicans have a chance to make history Sunday. They could elect the country's first woman president. Or they can return the party that held control for 70 street years back to the top office. No matter who they pick, the United States better pay attention. The effects here will be profound.
All three candidates want to dramatically change the way Mexico fights its drug war.
Mexico is a major drug production and transshipment point, funneling millions of dollars of narcotics into the United States every year. Along with the drugs, the cartels battling for control also export the narcoviolence that has scarred Mexico at increasingly stupefying levels.
Combating the cartels is of fundamental national importance for the United States. It is a national strategic interest. Yet, for most Americans not living in fear along the border, it is largely invisible and too easy to ignore.
Mexico's current president, Felipe Calderon, has aimed the country's military at the cartels, pouring thousands of troops on a mission to capture the top drug lords. Like Hercules against the Hydra, however, decapitating the drug organizations has served to spawn multiple new groups and, as the new bands battle for supremacy, increased violence.
In April, 14 butchered bodies were left in a van outside city hall in Nuevo Laredo. In apparent response, police found nine people hanged from a bridge. Killers left 14 heads in a cooler, outside city hall.
Horrible as the exchange of murders was, it paled in comparison to the gruesome mass killing that followed, barely an hour's drive from the U.S. border ¿- police counted 49 decapitated bodies. Statistics released by the Mexican government count nearly 50,000 murders since Calderon launched his crackdown on the cartel.
In the process, there have been successes, and embarrassments. The military has captured a number of kingpins and their underlings. But, along the way, they also found three top generals working with the cartels.
There are some small indications the tactic is working. The rate of increasing violence has slowed. The cartels have been broken into smaller, less powerful groups.
But Mexico's people have had enough. They want an end to the violence. And the three candidates running to replace Calderon are listening.
Enrique Peña Nieto, the sexy PRI candidate more than half of Mexico's women surveyed (married and single) said they would happily have an affair with, is the clear front runner.
He has promised to turn attention to reducing the violence that most affects his people, and away from trafficking and arresting drug leaders. He would pour police and soldiers into the areas with the worst violent crime.
"This doesn't mean that we don't pay attention to other crimes, or that we don't fight drug trafficking, but the central theme at this time is diminishing violence in the country," Peña Nieto told The Associated Press last month.
His opponents, however, hint that his promise is merely code for a return to PRI's past, when the party basically avoided violence by avoiding confrontation with the cartels.
"They've shown themselves to be absolutely tolerant of organized crime," Josefina Vazquez Mota told El Pais. Vazquez Mota is running on the presidential ticket for the National Action Party.
Vazquez Mota, unsurprisingly for the candidate from the current president's party, advocates an expansion of PAN's current approach. She wants to quadruple the size of the federal police force, to 150,000, and intensify the pressure on the weakened cartels.
Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants to halt drugs with hugs. He calls his strategy "Abrazos, no balazos," -- literally, "hugs, not bullets" -- and vows to withdraw the military, and tackling the social and economic inequality he blames for leading Mexico's youth into the drug trade.
"They should send us cheap credit, not military helicopters," he told the New York Times.
The three distinct drug policies compete Sunday. Whatever the outcome, the United States will feel the effect, at least as much as Mexico.
Source: Terra/Carlos Harrison