He is little known north of the border, but warm relations with Mexico's top trading partner are a must.
MEXICO CITY -- The newly elected president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is a mostly unknown figure in Washington, but he is moving aggressively to assure his northern neighbor that he will fight hard against Mexico's drug lords and continue to pursue warm relations with its top trading partner.
The outreach is necessary because Peña Nieto is an enigma to many in the United States, as even his closest aides concede. As a comfortable front-runner during the presidential campaign, he kept his policy pronouncements vague, and as a former governor, he has no track record in foreign policy.
Peña Nieto, who won the election Sunday, will face immediate scrutiny as he begins to select his Cabinet, especially his law enforcement and military ministers, who will inherit a brutal, complex war against wealthy paramilitary crime groups that have terrorized Mexico for six years and left 60,000 dead.
A top Peña Nieto campaign official, Emilio Lozoya, said in a statement Monday, "Some may wonder what a Peña Nieto presidency will mean. The answer is simple. It will mean a stabilization of the situation in Mexico and advancement on many of the issues Americans care about."
Peña Nieto, who assumes office Dec. 1, orchestrated a remarkable political comeback of his Institutional Revolution Party (PRI), which ran Mexico for more than 70 years until its defeat in 2000. But he knows that many people remain skeptical that the PRI has truly transformed itself from its older, autocratic, venal version.
His party has a reputation for cutting deals with drug cartels and allowing narcotics to move north, as long as crime mafias avoided public violence and attacks against civilians. Three of the last PRI governors in the bloodied border state of Tamaulipas are under investigation for allegedly aiding cartels.
"There is no return to the past," Peña Nieto assured his audience here and abroad in a victory speech Sunday night.
The United States and Mexico have a lot more than cocaine kingpins on their agenda. As top trading partners, the economies of the two countries are deeply integrated. Mexico is a top producer of the automobiles, flat-screen TVs and winter vegetables bought in the United States. More than $1 billion in goods cross the border daily. There are 33 million people of Mexican descent in the United States, including 6 million illegal immigrants.
Speaking on national television Monday, Peña Nieto -- the first Mexican president in 30 years who did not attend an elite U.S. university such as Harvard or Yale -- said he had received congratulatory phone calls from President Obama and other world leaders.
Obama shared "an interest in seeing the relationship between our countries expand," Peña Nieto said, adding that the American president told him that the United States considers the relationship with Mexico "one of most important in the world."xxx