By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN
MEXICO CITY (AP) - Mexico's next president has boldly promised to halve the number of kidnappings and murders during his six-year term by moving law enforcement away from showy drug busts and focusing on protecting ordinary citizens from gangs.
Yet Enrique Pena Nieto said remarkably little specific about his anti-crime strategy during the three-month campaign that ended with his still-contested victory in Sunday's election.
That ambiguity has fed fears at home and abroad that Pena Nieto might look the other way if cartels smuggle drugs northward without creating violence in Mexico. Many analysts wonder if Pena Nieto is holding back politically sensitive details of his plans, or simply doesn't know yet how he'll be prosecute the next stage of Mexico's drug war.
Some hints are starting to seep out. A close acquaintance, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, told The Associated Press that the president-elect has discussed a new offensive against the smaller, local gangs that have cropped up in many Mexican states and earn money through kidnapping and extortion in addition to drug dealing.
President Felipe Calderon's 5 1/2-year war against the big cartels has been criticized by some for fracturing control of territory and smuggling routes, spawning smaller gangs like La Linea in Chihuahua state and La Barredora in the city of Acapulco that view ordinary citizens as their primary source of illicit income.
"In Mexico you have the drug cartels and then you've got regional gangs that are taking advantage of what's happening there," Cuellar said. "That is what he means by reducing the violence: Go after those folks who are actually hurting, assaulting and kidnapping people."
Analysts have said any new focus necessarily means fewer of Mexico's limited resources would go to fighting the biggest smugglers of drugs to the U.S.
But Cuellar, who has met with Pena Nieto several times in the U.S. and Mexico, stressed that the man who will become president Dec. 1 insists he will still target larger organizations such as the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, the rival groups that have become Mexico's dominant criminal organizations.
"He's told me he's going to go after everybody," Cuellar said. "He said, `It's the drug cartels and the gangs, and I'm going to reduce the violence.'"
Since Sunday's vote, Pena Nieto has repeatedly promised to continue Calderon's confrontation with cartels, sending messages to both Mexican and U.S. audiences that his new approach will not mean quiet accords with drug gangs in exchange for a reduction in violence that has killed more than 47,500 people since late 2006.
"We will wage an effective fight against the capos, against the heads of the cartels, but clearly also with a rethinking that will allow a lowering of violence," Pena Nieto told a small group of reporters Monday. "There will be no truce, no pact with organized crime."
Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ran Mexico for 71 unbroken years of autocratic rule that ended in 2000, and it was accused of systemic corruption that included payoffs from drug lords in exchange for protection.
Despite Pena Nieto's firm disavowals, many voters said Sunday that they were voting for the PRI in part because they believed its return to power would bring back those backroom deals and reduce violence.
Among those skeptical about a return of the PRI has been U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who congratulated Pena Nieto on Twitter, followed by: "will be interesting to see how he approaches drug trafficking & other issues of mutual concern."
A day later, Pena Nieto thanked McCain and tweeted his response: "In the struggle against drug trafficking, Mexico's undeniable obligation, we will look for immediate results."
Pena Nieto has signaled that he is open to consideration of new approaches to the drug war, saying during the campaign and again this week that he favors a debate on legalization of drugs, even though he opposes the idea personally.
But so far, Pena Nieto's few concrete proposals point more toward continuity than change.
Since his victory, Pena Nieto has repeated a campaign pledge to build a 40,000-member paramilitary police force that would be dispatched to areas most in the grip of organized crime.
The idea for such a force appears at least partly aimed at assuaging critics of Calderon's overwhelming dependence on Mexican soldiers and marines to confront drug cartels. Rights groups and policing experts say that approach brought human rights violations, an overemphasis on force and delays in building capable civilian police forces.
Pena Nieto's new gendarmes, however, would be largely recruited from the ranks of the armed forces, raising questions about whether the proposal is simply a repackaging of Calderon's use of the military.
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