Enrique Pena Nieto during an interview

Enrique Pena Nieto, a candidate in Mexico's upcoming presidential elections, during an interview in Mexico City. The top three contenders for Mexico's presidency have all promised a major shift in the country's drug war strategy, placing a higher priority on reducing the violence in Mexico than on using arrests and seizures to block the flow of drugs to the U.S.

MEXICO CITY – The top three contenders for Mexico’s presidency have all promised a major shift in the country’s drug war strategy, placing a higher priority on reducing the violence in Mexico than on using arrests and seizures to block the flow of drugs to the U.S.

The candidates, while vowing to continue to fight drug trafficking, say they intend to eventually withdraw the Mexican army from the drug fight. They are concerned that it has proved unfit for police work and has contributed to the high death toll, which has exceeded 50,000 since the departing president, Felipe Calderon, made the military a cornerstone of his battle against drug traffickers more than five years ago.

The front-runner, Enrique Pena Nieto, does not emphasize stopping drug shipments or capturing drug kingpins as he enters the final weeks of campaigning for the July 1 election. Lately he has suggested that while Mexico should continue to work with the U.S. government against organized crime, it should not “subordinate to the strategies of other countries.”

“The task of the state, what should be its priority from my point of view, and what I have called for in this campaign, is to reduce the levels of violence,” he said in an interview.

U.S. officials have been careful not to publicly weigh in on the race or the prospect of a changed strategy, for fear of being accused of meddling. One senior Obama administration official said on Friday that Pena Nieto’s demand that the U.S. respect Mexican priorities “is a sound bite he is using for obvious political purposes.” In private meetings, the official said, “what we basically get is that he fully appreciates and understands that if/when he wins, he is going to keep working with us.”

Still, the potential shift, reflecting the thinking of a growing number of crime researchers, has raised concern among some American policymakers.

“Will there be a situation where the next president just turns a blind eye to the cartels, ceding Mexico to the cartels, or will they be a willing partner with the United States to combat them?” Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., asked at a hearing this month in Phoenix. “I hope it’s the latter.”

The two other principal candidates, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the race in 2006 and is gaining in polls, and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the incumbent National Action Party, have joined Pena Nieto in promising to make it their priority to reduce the body count, which has spiraled out of control during Calderon’s six-year tenure.

“Results will be measured not by how many criminals are captured, but by how stable and secure the communities are,” Vazquez Mota wrote on her campaign website.

Calderon, who is constitutionally limited to one term, used the army more aggressively in fighting drugs than any previous Mexican leader, overshadowing his attempts to improve Mexican institutions. All three candidates vow on the stump to devote more attention to programs that address the social inequality that leads young people to join criminal groups.

The candidates promise to continue fortifying the federal police, and Pena Nieto has called for adding a “gendarmerie” paramilitary unit for the most violent, rural areas where policing is especially lacking. But they eschew Calderon’s talk of dismantling the cartels and promising big seizures, and only when pressed in an interview did Pena Nieto suggest that capturing the most-wanted kingpin, Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, would be a goal.

As the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI, Pena Nieto is the source of much of the American worry. The PRI ran Mexico for 71 years, until 2000, with authoritarianism, corruption and, critics say, a wink and nod to drug traffickers. Indeed, Pena Nieto’s comfortable lead in the polls has shrunk after opponents warned, among other charges, that he and his party would make deals with the cartels for peace.

Pena Nieto, 45, insisted in an interview that he was a fresh face representing a new democratic era for the party – going as far as to say he has never tried any illicit drug. But he nevertheless defended the PRI, saying the other parties have had their share of bad apples and suggesting that the return of the party would be another sign of Mexico’s maturing democracy.

“I come from a party with a great history,” he said. “It is singled out more for its mistakes and errors than its achievements,” like poverty reduction and social programs.

Mexican analysts say the candidates are responding to growing public frustration with the current anti-drug approach. Calderon has long portrayed the violence, much of it cartel infighting, as a sign that traffickers are on their heels, an idea that has lost resonance with the public.

Although drug consumption is rising in Mexico, drug production and trafficking are seen primarily as American problems that matter less than the crime they spawn. “You go ask the majority of people about a drug lab in the city, they are going to say, ‘As long as they don’t kill or rob me, it doesn’t matter,”' said Jorge Chabat, a foreign affairs professor at CIDE, a research institution here.

To shift the drug war toward combating violence, the next president faces a costly and exceedingly difficult job of cleansing and rebuilding poorly trained police agencies and judicial institutions rife with corruption, a job Calderon began.

The focus on arresting top traffickers and extraditing them to the U.S. has weakened several organizations, the Mexican and American authorities have insisted, but the bloodshed caused by newly emergent and splintering groups has overwhelmed the local and state authorities and left the impression that the antidrug forces are losing ground.

“They can get some of the guys at the top, but now you’ve got all these other guys running around doing whatever they want, and the state and local police can’t handle it,” said an American official who requested anonymity because of the political sensitivities.

American officials said they were still not certain about Pena Nieto’s commitment to the kinds of changes that would be needed to fight both crime and drugs.

His message of a new PRI has been undercut somewhat by near-daily headlines from an investigation of former PRI governors accused of corruption and possible links to organized crime.

Even some of Pena Nieto’s supporters in Washington, like Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat who befriended him last year, acknowledge the questions about the party and whether Pena Nieto can distance himself from its past.

The new Mexican president will probably face a divided congress, meaning he or she would wield considerably less clout than past leaders did.

“What’s really quite clear is that the presidency is not what it used to be,” said Arturo Valenzuela, a Georgetown University professor and former top State Department official in the region.

He added: “If the PRI comes back, it’s not going to be the way the PRI governed before, because the country is just so different. So the question is how will they run the country? They will have to function in a very complicated electoral democracy.”

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