- The Washington Times - Friday, February 3, 2012

The front-runner in Mexico’s presidential race represents a party known for allowing drug-trafficking cartels semiautonomous control of certain regions during its rule in the previous century.

The prospect of a victory by Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the July 1 presidential election has troubled U.S. policymakers about drug-control efforts with Mexico.

Over the past five years, the U.S. has backed the bare-knuckles war on drug cartels by President Felipe Calderon, who is barred by the constitution from serving a second six-year term.

“In private, you hear concern from a lot of U.S. policymakers about how the PRI would deal with organized crime,” said Andrew Selee, who directs the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Mr. Selee stressed that “the U.S. government is likely to adapt to whatever government is elected in Mexico.”

His comments shed light on the debate over how to proceed with a policy that during the past five years has involved the deployment of CIA operatives and drone aircraft in the fight against the cartels.

A high-ranking Mexican official told The Washington Times that “strategic law enforcement and intelligence collaboration — bilateral, regional and global — between the U.S. and Mexico has advanced at an unprecedented rate since Calderon took office.”

“A lot of policymakers in Washington would be concerned to see that evaporate,” regardless of who wins the upcoming election, the Mexican official said.

It’s a subject that the Obama administration has not been eager to discuss.

U.S. investment

“We would expect to continue to work closely with the next government, led by whatever political party, elected by the Mexican people,” said William Ostick, a spokesman for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department.

Congress has approved about $1.6 billion in drug-war aid to the Calderon administration since 2008 under a program known as the Merida Initiative.

Initially focused on training police and delivering military hardware, the program is shifting to help Mexico strengthen its justice system, State Department officials said.

CIA operatives and retired U.S. military personnel also have been sent to an “intelligence fusion center” near Monterrey, Mexico, and officials have said hundreds of drone missions are being flown in support of the war on drug cartels.

The U.S. support, however, represents a fraction of the estimated $45 billion that Mexico has spent on the war under Mr. Calderon, whose administration bankrolled a top-secret $100 million underground bunker and has deployed 45,000 army troops across 18 Mexican states since taking office in 2006.

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