Phoenix, AZ (written by Daniel Gonzalez/Arizona Republic) -- As Mexicans prepare to choose a new president one month from today, the election has turned into a referendum of sorts on President Felipe Calderon's war on the drug cartels, an effort that some Mexicans applaud as long overdue and others blame for escalating violence in the country.
The primary question for the three leading candidates seeking to succeed Calderon is whether they would continue to use the military to confront the cartels, as Calderon has since he launched a U.S.-backed crackdown on the drug-trafficking networks in 2006, or pursue a different strategy, experts say.
The candidates have yet to offer concrete proposals about how they would reduce cartel-related violence, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 people and emerged as the issue of overwhelming concern for Mexicans living on both sides of the border.
"Public safety is the big issue. It's what everyone is talking about," said Jaime Aguila, a history professor at Arizona State University who studies Mexican politics. "But while the candidates promise they will improve public safety, they are vague on the details."
Many in the United States -- particularly in border states such as Arizona -- are paying close attention to the race because the outcome could affect relations between the countries.
Besides sharing a 2,000-mile border, Mexico and the United States are also intertwined economically and socially. Mexico is the second-largest market for U.S. exports and the third-largest source of imports. What's more, nearly 12 million Mexicans live in the United States, and the U.S. has more than 30 million people of Mexican descent.
How the next president, who is limited to one six-year term, will deal with the violence is especially important in border states like Arizona, where large numbers of Mexicans travel regularly to visit relatives in Mexico and where law-enforcement officials are concerned about drug violence spreading into this country. The U.S. has given Mexico hundreds of millions of dollars to fight the cartels.
Most of the violence has been concentrated in eight states considered key drug-trafficking areas, among them Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas, but it has spread to other states, including Nuevo Leon, where 49 headless or mutilated bodies were recently found outside the city of Monterrey.
Two weeks ago, the police chief of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, across the border from San Luis, Ariz., was shot and killed as he drove away from his home in a city that was about to be lauded as one of the state's safest.
"This is really Mexico's 9/11. It has really stunned Mexicans, and this is a country that is used to a certain level of violence," said Erik Lee, associate director of ASU's North American Center for Transborder Studies.
The top issue
The economy, job creation and privatization of the national oil industry are all major issues in the race. But they have been overshadowed by drug violence, said Christopher Wilson, an associate with the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
"Certainly, there is a lot of concern in border states about the amount of drugs crossing through, and there are family ties that people have to a lot of border communities on the Mexican side of the border, so there is a natural concern for security on that side of the border as well," Wilson said.
All three candidates have promised to reduce drug violence, but they differ on how they would go about it, Wilson said. The candidates are scheduled to participate in their second debate on June 10.
There are 524,000 Mexicans in Arizona, which has the fourth-largest Mexican population of any U.S. state. Of those, 482,000 are of voting age, which is 18 in Mexico, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a research center in Washington, D.C.
Just 2,324 Mexicans in Arizona have registered to vote by mail, according to Mexico's federal election agency. Six years ago, 1,121 Mexicans from Arizona cast mail-in ballots.
For many Mexicans living in Arizona, drug violence in Mexico is the most important issue in the race. But many see voting as a waste of time, despite efforts by the Mexican government to encourage more Mexicans living outside the country to participate in the election.
"They are all the same," said Phoenix resident Jose Chacon, 44, echoing a common attitude among Mexicans in the U.S. toward Mexican politicians.
Chacon said he has no plans to vote. The restaurant cook is from the state of Michoacan, where drug cartel violence is rampant.
He said he agrees with Calderon's crackdown on the cartels but sees no end to the bloodshed.
Alejandro Lenero, 37, of Phoenix, is also concerned about security in Mexico but is equally pessimistic.
Lenero said he usually supports PAN candidates, but he doesn't have confidence that any of the presidential candidates have a solution to the drug-violence problem in Mexico.
"My personal opinion is this goes beyond the political parties," he said. "I don't think any of them can solve the problem. The problem is so many people without employment going for the easy money with the drug cartels. First, they have to fix the employment."
U.S. officials weigh in
State and federal law-enforcement officials in Arizona also have been keeping an eye on the Mexican presidential elections.
During a congressional-field hearing on controlling international drug trafficking held earlier this month in Phoenix, several top law-enforcement officials said cooperation with Mexican law enforcement increased under the Calderon administration. They hope that cooperation will continue under his successor.
With the cooperation of Mexican authorities, the U.S. has indicted "hundreds of high-level narcotics traffickers from Mexico," said Doug Coleman, special agent in charge of the Arizona office of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Anything that would change that level of cooperation would be extremely damaging," Coleman said.
In March, after meeting with the three leading candidates, Vice President Joe Biden said he believes Mexico will continue to cooperate closely with the United States in battling the cartels.
At the same time, Biden rejected growing calls from leaders in Mexico and other Latin American countries for the legalization of drugs as a way of reducing drug violence.