EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - When Enrique Pena Nieto won the Mexican presidency on Sunday with a campaign pledge to reduce drug-cartel violence, El Paso entrepreneur Ricardo Fernandez reacted with anger.
“Sixty thousand people died for what? What’s the point?” asked Fernandez, who has watched the bloody war on drugs unfold next door in Mexico, where he was born.
“So many people have been murdered and suffered. For what? We’re just going back to the way it was,” he said, referring to a return to rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for decades.
The win by telegenic Pena Nieto is stirring an outpouring of responses ranging from anger to cautious optimism among people like Fernandez, 33, who live along the U.S. border with Mexico.
In the six years since President Felipe Calderon sent troops to smash the powerful cartels, more than 55,000 people have been shot, beheaded or tortured to death in Mexico, the majority in rugged states close to the border.
Pena Nieto has pledged to take a different approach in tackling one of the bloodiest crime waves in history, prioritizing violence reduction over battling the cartels.
He wants the federal police bulked up to more than 50,000 officers. He is also promising to create jobs, fight corruption and impunity and has said he would keep the army on the streets until the new police force could take over.
“What will happen after Calderon? I guess that’s the $64,000 question,” said Antonio Estrada, the sheriff of Santa Cruz County, a heavily trafficked corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants that hugs the Mexico border in southern Arizona.
“His position has been that he is not going to concentrate wholly on the cartels. He wants to concentrate on the violence that is causing all that anguish and sorrow in Mexico,” he said, adding: “I think that’s going to be a drastic change from President Calderon.”
Pena Nieto, 45, will take office in December, marking the return to power for the PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the twentieth century - a time when the cartels’ power soared amid widespread corruption and weak institutions.
Fernandez is among border residents who fear Pena Nieto’s win will mean a return to the corruption and accommodation with organized crime that marked the PRI’s 71 years in power.
“They are going to come to the table and negotiate with the cartels and settle things down and control it like they always have,” said Fernandez, who runs Amor por Juarez, a non-profit organization working with young people in crime-racked Ciudad Juarez.
Others in the Texas border city are hopeful that Pena Nieto will break with the PRI’s past and help to consolidate tentative security gains in hot spots like Ciudad Juarez, where murders averaged 300 a month in 2010 but dropped to around 70 in June this year.
“Yesterday Nieto pledged that there was going to be no pact with the cartels. That is extremely encouraging news,” El Paso mayor John Cook said this week.
“One of the concerns that a lot of people had is that you would make all of these painful steps forward, then, with the new administration, just come all the way back,” added Cook, whose city hall was pelted by stray bullets from a shoot-out over the river at the height of the troubles in Ciudad Juarez.
In Laredo, Texas, across the narrow ribbon of the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo, where a suspected cartel car-bomb exploded two days before Sunday’s election, the mayor is hopeful.
“You have to be cautiously optimistic ... if you keep thinking negative, then things won’t get better,” said Mayor Raul Salinas, a veteran FBI agent whose previous job involved developing contacts with police in Mexico.
“I don’t know what his plans are, but I will tell you this, when he says he wants to reduce the violence I think it’s real.”
Mexico is the United States’ second-largest trading partner after Canada, and bilateral trade is worth about $1 billion a day. For companies doing business on the U.S.-Mexico border, security is a key issue, and there is concern about Pena Nieto’s shift in strategy for tackling the cartels.
“I think in general people want the next administration in Mexico to continue the crackdown on cartels,” said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents produce importers in Nogales, the largest trade hub on the Arizona-Sonora border.
“When produce companies are trying to get their customers in Michigan, or who knows where, to come here and visit the warehouse, they’re afraid,” said Jungmeyer, adding: “As soon as the drug cartels are cleaned up, we’ll be happier.”
Others in business in the city hope that shifting the focus away from a war footing may help to build on the gains made by Calderon.
“There’s no doubt that the strategy to date has had some effect because no one comes out and starts to be as vicious as they are, if it’s not biting them in the pocket,” Nils Urman, a property owner and businessman in Nogales for more than three decades, said of the cartels.
“But this is not something that is sustainable. It’s like all-out war against your own people,” he said.
“Hopefully, the PRI party had 12 years of opportunity to watch the world evolve and maybe they evolved with it. Odds are, we’re not going to see the same PRI party as before. That game’s over,” he added.
Additional reporting by Curt Prendergast in Nogales and Jared Taylor in Laredo; Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Edith Honan and David Brunnstrom