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High Expectations As Mexico's Pena Nieto Takes Helm


As President Obama begins his second term, he'll be sharing the world stage with a new neighbor. In Mexico tomorrow, Enrique Pena Nieto formally takes over as president. Now, some in Mexico have feared this moment because it marks the return of the PRI party to power. Also known as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, they dominated Mexican politics for much of the 20th century and they were seen as heavy-handed and authoritarian. Yet many have high expectations for this new president, who's young and telegenic. And to learn more about him, we're joined by NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So with a new president in the country you cover, Pena Nieto is just 46 years old. Give us a better sense of who he is.

KAHN: Well, he is quite popular here. He was the governor of the country's most populous state, and that's right outside Mexico City. He has long been groomed for this job by many very well-known old-timers in his PRI party. And he had their support. But during his campaign, he artfully managed to really distance himself just enough from them and proclaim himself as a part of the new PRI, a much more modern political party than before. Many here say that he's very handsome, and he's married to a famous soap opera star, which earned him lots of points. And many Mexicans are really frustrated with the brutal drug violence here and they really wanted a change. So this handsome, young politician seemed to many to be the answer for the time.

GREENE: Well, you mentioned the brutal drug violence. I mean it feels like that's all we've heard about from Mexico in recent years - the news about violence and this drug war. I mean, the State Department in the United States tells Americans they shouldn't even go to parts of Mexico. Why are expectations so high for this man despite all of that?

KAHN: Well, it's very interesting. He really hasn't said he's going to do anything much differently to change the current drug war that's going on. You know, for the short-term we're going to see the military and some sort of federal police force continue to be the lead agencies in this fight. But one difference Pena Nieto is talking about is that instead of going after cartel kingpin, like the outgoing president, Felipe Calderon, he says he's going to just stop the murders, the extortion, the associated violence with the drug trade instead of an all-out military offensive. And some people really like that. He's gone so far as saying that he's going to cut the murder rate dramatically in just his first 100 days in office. He does have one plan that's been a bit controversial. He said he wants to reorganize the federal police force into just one agency and put that under the interior ministry. He's just going do away with this public security agency that President Calderon started here. Some say Pena Nieto is just reinventing the wheel, and they really worry about the interior ministry being resurrected as a major police force in the country. It has this notorious reputation for political repression under PRI administrations.

GREENE: Now, one bright spot in Mexico, Carrie, has been an economy that hasn't been doing that badly.

KAHN: It is. And Pena Nieto's really been able to shift this discussion away from the drug story that dominates the news so much to really the economy. It's just a really much happier story here. The economy here has really recovered quite well in the past two years. And Pena Nieto says he can even make it even better because he has the political skills necessary to bring the reforms that Mexico needs right now, and there's a lot of hope that he can do that.

GREENE: And of course the relationship with the United States, always important, with the shared border and immigration issues. And even before being sworn in, Pena Nieto was in Washington meeting with President Obama.

KAHN: Right. And when he was there, and as he's doing here, he really wants to shift this discussion away from drugs and just border security and security issues with the United States and bring it into the economy, have more of a broader agenda with the United States. He really wants to integrate the economies and make the growth rate grow even better. It's about three percent, and he says he can do it - he's been promising that he's going to double that and it'll be six percent annual growth by the end of his six year administration.

GREENE: Pretty ambitious in a worldwide economic downturn. But it sounds like he's coming in with a lot of plans.

KAHN: He does, and he's making a lot of promises. But you know, people are optimistic that he can do it, but beyond the media hype these days, Pena Nieto has just a ton of challenges. Mexico has one of the lowest tax collection rates in Latin America, corruption is still terrible here. One watchdog group estimates that Mexicans pay - this is an amazing statistic - $2.5 billion a year in bribes, and that's quite a big bite chunked out of GDP. So Pena Nieto has a lot of challenges ahead of him.

GREENE: Enrique Pena Nieto is taking over as Mexico's president tomorrow. And we've been hearing about him from NPR's Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on
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