By Agustin de Gracia.


Enrique Peña Nieto, the frontrunner in Mexico's presidential election, said in an interview with Efe that he supported a "gradual" withdrawal of the army from the fight against drug trafficking, but he refused to give a time frame within which the military should return to the barracks.

"The army must keep on because it's a demand and acclamation from the societies of several of the country's entities (states)," Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, told Efe in this northwestern Mexican border city.

"As long as we do not have conditions ... of peace and tranquility, it would be difficult for us to make the decision for the army to return to the barracks. It must be done in a gradual manner," Peña Nieto said.

President Felipe Calderon ordered the armed forces to fight Mexico's drug cartels shortly after taking office on Dec. 1, 2006, to try to stem a wave of violence that has left about 50,000 people dead.

Crimes such as murder, kidnapping and extortion have increased by two or three times over the past six years, and so the decision to try and reduce the violence has become a "central issue," Peña Nieto said.

"But time periods cannot be set" regarding a possible withdrawal of the army, he added.

Peña Nieto, in an interview he gave at the end of a campaign tour last weekend in Baja California state, said he was convinced that there must be "head-on combat" with organized crime and drug trafficking.

He rejected the insinuations among certain politicians about an alleged willingness of the PRI to negotiate an end to the war with the cartels, a possibility the candidate labeled "unfounded" and which is intended only to discredit the party, which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000.

The 45-year-old candidate, tired from two campaign events he had just finished on Sunday, reviewed the development of the election campaign, which started in late March, and the new elements that had arisen over time.

Among them, he mentioned the protests staged in recent weeks by university students, who have been taking to the streets to protest television manipulation and to criticize Peña Nieto.

"I see them as genuine expressions and proof of the vitality of our democracy," Peña Nieto said, denying that the protests can be considered as a "Mexican Spring" similar to what erupted in some Arab countries.

"There are doubts (among young people), there are very clear postulates of what, without doubt, Mexico should have in this democratic condition," the candidate said, adding that Mexico's political situation is very different from that which prevails in the Arab nations.

"In our regime, it's the majority in society ... that's going to define what the political options are," the PRI presidential hopeful said.

Peña Nieto is leading in all the voter surveys in the final month before the July 1 election, followed by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate fielded by a coalition of leftist parties, and Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the governing National Action Party, or PAN.

His political rivals are throwing in Peña Nieto's face that he has become the new image of an old PRI that is trying to regain power, but the candidate says that "concern" makes no sense.

"The great majority of those of us who participate in the party represent a new generation, a generation that grew up in the democratic culture," Peña Nieto said.

The PRI is projecting itself as "the political option on which the option for change with moving forward and stability is pinned," Peña Nieto said.

The PRI candidate said that, if he moves into the Los Pinos presidential residence on Dec. 1, his first decision would be to call together all the political forces "to seek points of agreement" to achieve "the change that is needed" in Mexico.

Peña Nieto, however, denied that that would imply forming a coalition government, a proposal Vazquez Mota has made.

"The coalition is a model that has no place in a presidential regime such as in Mexico. It fits in parliamentary models, but Mexico has a presidential regime," Peña Nieto said. EFE