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Mexican president-elect: Economic growth is key weapon in drug war

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 0052 GMT (0852 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Enrique Pena Nieto says he wants to create greater North American economic integration
  • "We've lost presence and competitiveness on the international market," he says
  • The president-elect says his security strategy will focus on reducing violence
  • Pena Nieto says he is against legalizing drugs

(CNN) -- Creating more economic opportunities will be Mexico's greatest weapon in the war on drugs, the country's president-elect said Tuesday.

"That, I think, is going to be the best way my government can prevent organized crime," President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Without jobs and social programs, he said, "millions of my countrymen have no other option than to dedicate themselves sometimes to criminal activity."

The wide-ranging interview was recorded just a few hours before the incoming leader met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. In his first meeting with Obama, Pena Nieto said he planned to focus on building trust and boosting economic ties to create jobs.

Mexican leader eyes economic ties with U.S.

"We've lost presence and competitiveness on the international market. ... There's still space, an opportunity, to achieve greater integration as far as productivity, which will allow us to improve the competitive conditions for creating jobs across North America," he said.

Pena Nieto, 46, said his security strategy will focus on reducing the drug-related violence that took 60,000 lives during his predecessor's six-year term, though he provided few specifics about how he would stem the violence or what aspects of outgoing President Felipe Caderon's strategy he will change.

"We will keep the policies that I think work," he said, "including cooperation with the United States to effectively fight organized crime."

The way that fight is waged may have to change, he said, in light of changing U.S. policies such as the recent referendums legalizing marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington state.

"Personally, I am not in favor of legalization of drugs ... because it's not just about marijuana. It seems to me that is a gateway through which people will start taking much more harmful drugs," Pena Nieto said. "But it's clear that this thing that has happened in two states in the near future could bring us to rethinking the strategy."

Opinion: To-do list for Obama and Mexico's new president

Pena Nieto won Mexico's July presidential vote, marking a return to power for his Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years until 2000, when Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party won the presidency.

On the campaign trail, some political opponents of Pena Nieto warned that negotiating with drug cartels and gangs could be on his agenda -- an accusation that Pena Nieto repeatedly denied. But his denials didn't squelch speculation on both sides of the border that negotiating with cartels -- or at least easing the pressure on them -- could be on the table.

In a June congressional hearing, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said the war on drugs was nearing a "potential crossroad," referring to Pena Nieto's plan and his party's political history.

"While in power, the PRI minimized violence by turning a blind eye to the cartels," the Wisconsin Republican said, noting that Pena Nieto did "not emphasize stopping drug shipments or capturing kingpins."

In a statement the next day, Pena Nieto's campaign said he was committed to combatting organized crime.

"The law is applied, it is never negotiated," the statement said.

In addition to meeting with Obama in Washington Tuesday, Pena Nieto also spoke with other officials, including U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pena Nieto will take office Saturday in an inauguration ceremony in Mexico City, replacing Calderon of the National Action Party, who has served as president since 2006.

Defiant former Mexican mayor killed

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