MEXICO CITY — On the eve of his inauguration and his party’s return to power, Mexico’s incoming president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has vowed to reshape his country’s education, business and energy sectors in ways that could have profound effects on the United States.
Peña Nieto, a dynamic politician from an old autocratic political party, has said that he wants to change the conversation about Mexico in the United States, away from headless torsos and drug cartels to trade and manufacturing.
Together with the United States, Peña Nieto and his top advisers say, Mexico wants to drill more oil, assemble more cars and build “better, faster, smarter bridges” to increase the $1 billion-a-day commerce across the 2,000-mile border, the busiest crossing in the world.
Peña Nieto, who takes office Saturday, and his team say they are ready to help the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress implement a guest-worker program to regulate the flow of Mexican labor to the United States, where an estimated 6 million Mexicans live illegally.
But his top aides said Peña Nieto hoped to create an economy that is competitive enough to keep more Mexican workers at home.
“Some people joke that the fence should actually be higher, because, seriously, we are going to need all the workers we can get if the economy is growing at 5 or 6 percent,” said Emilio Lozoya, a former manager of a billion-dollar investment fund in New York who will head Mexico’s national oil company.
After meeting with Peña Nieto in Washington on Tuesday, President Obama called the plans “very ambitious” and promised that the bilateral relationship would grow.
A lifelong politician, Peña Nieto, 46, has pledged to lift 15 million Mexicans out of poverty, essentially reducing the ranks of the country’s poor by a third.
He promised that half of all college-age Mexicans would be enrolled in higher education, up from less than 30 percent today, one of the lowest figures among developed Latin American countries.
And Peña Nieto said he would cut the murder rate by 50 percent during his six-year term, in a country where more than 100,000 homicides have occurred in the past six years.
Peña Nieto won a bruising election with only 38 percent of the vote in a three-way race.
Many Mexicans remain suspicious that Peña Nieto’s fresh face masks the darker ambitions of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico between 1929 and 2000 with a mix of corruption, vote-rigging, crony capitalism and coercion.
“Enrique Peña Nieto and his team are an enigma. No one knows what he really stands for,” said political analyst Sergio Aguayo.
But Peña Nieto says past is not prologue. He has surrounded himself with a coterie of bright, ambitious aides educated at top universities, including MIT, Harvard and Oxford, and who are successful in business, government and academia.
On Friday, he named his cabinet, pulling in close allies to run his finance and interior ministries. He also reached across the aisle, making a former leftist mayor of Mexico City his new minister for social development and naming a top member of the opposition party as his foreign secretary.
“To his credit, Peña Nieto knows what he doesn’t know and has named individuals who have the knowledge that he doesn’t possess,” said George Grayson, an expert on Mexican politics at the College of William and Mary.
“We need a more equitable economic environment,” said Luis Videgaray, a former investment banker and academic known as “El Doctor” who is Peña Nieto’s right-hand man and was named as finance minister. “Our current system favors the wealthy. It’s very difficult to be an entrepreneur in Mexico.”
Videgaray said his boss says it is time to be less ideological, more practical. “The economy is performing well. We need to keep economic stability, but it’s not enough. We need to do things to enhance productivity,” he said.
On security, Peña Nieto says he is not backing down in the fight against organized crime but will shift the government’s priorities from killing drug cartel bosses to bringing down the murder rate.
With governors from the PRI controlling 21 of Mexico’s 31 states, the new president will be in a far better position to push the sweeping reforms that eluded outgoing President Felipe Calderon, whose administration was bogged down by the U.S.-backed drug fight.
Peña Nieto wants to shutter local police departments, whose poorly paid officers often share pistols and are overwhelmed by gangsters. They would be replaced by state police under more centralized command.
The incoming president also envisions a reassignment of Mexico’s federal police force, which swelled under Calderon from 6,000 officers to more than 35,000. Peña Nieto has said that he will add 35,000 officers to its ranks but would not use them as Mexico’s primary anti-drug agency.
Instead, a crime-fighting force modeled after the French National Gendarmerie will be created to gradually bring Mexican troops back to their barracks, Peña Nieto says.
His advisers describe the gendarmerie as a paramilitary hybrid armed with military-grade weapons but trained to think and operate like police investigators. They will be deployed to Mexico’s crime hot spots but will be accountable to the central government, not local authorities.
Peña Nieto is in talks with Paris about sending French advisers to train the new force.
“The core element is reducing violence,” Lozoya said. “We need more people going to jail rather than getting killed.”
Videgaray also said that Peña Nieto wants to “help facilitate” immigration reform in the United States, including a new temporary-worker program that would be “crafted by both sides.”
“It is up to the U.S. to decide,” Videgaray said. “But we can help.”
The new president also wants to open up the national oil company, known as Pemex, to international partnerships, which would require a constitutional amendment. He is especially keen to lure U.S. energy companies to help Mexico exploit its oil reserves in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and its shale oil deposits along its northern border.
Mexico is thought to have the fifth-largest reserves of shale gas in the world but lacks the technology and know-how to tap in.
Mexico’s powerful oil workers union has blocked such a move. But as the leader of a party with historical links to the union, Peña Nieto is expected to have far better chances of engineering energy reform legislation than his predecessor.