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Commentary: We Americans should watch politics south of the border

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SAN DIEGO -- Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said recently that her biggest regret from her time in the George W. Bush administration is that she didn't focus more on our backyard.

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"I think the thing that I'd most like to do over is some of the aspects of the relationship with Mexico," Rice told CNN's Candy Crowley. Specifically, she said, the United States should have dealt earlier with "the terrible border troubles that we now know are in Mexico, with the drug cartels, to do something about immigration reform."

Cabinet officers don't get the luxury of "do-overs." But the American people do. They can put pressure on the Obama administration and Congress to better assist the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon in his high-stakes battle against the drug cartels. And they can demand a practical and fair solution to our nation's antiquated immigration system so that workers from Mexico and other countries are paired up with the U.S. employers that need them.

But the first step is for Americans to pay more attention to what's going on in Mexico. This year, one thing going on there is a presidential election -- the first since Calderon bravely declared war on the cartels shortly after taking office in December 2006.

This was more than five years and nearly 50,000 casualties ago. The Mexican government hasn't released an official death toll since early 2011; at that point, the number was 34,612. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Mexican attorney general's office recently released a partial death toll for 2011 -- 12,903 people killed due to what it called "rivalry among criminal organizations." Most experts on the drug war now expect that, by the time Calderon leaves office in December, the total number of casualties will easily early surpass 50,000.

This "rivalry among criminal organizations" is basically a turf war. What started as an attempt by a handful of drug gangs to fend off an assault by the Mexican army is now a campaign to control whole swaths of territory, including some of Mexico's major cities. This makes the conflict harder to control and more difficult to end, no matter which candidate succeeds Calderon as president and which party comes to power.

Most political observers in both the United States and Mexico expect the successor to be Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate for the resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which held the presidency for most of the 20th century and seems to be riding back into power on the steam of public discontent with the drug war. Much of that discontent is focused on Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN.

In polls, Pena Nieto far outdistances Josefina Vasquez Mota, the favorite to win the nomination for the PAN, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the likely nominee of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.

In fact, the only person who seems able to beat Pena Nieto in the July general election is, well, Pena Nieto. Consistent with a long-standing Mexican tradition, the candidate is embroiled in a number of escandolos (scandals) -- big and small.

In December, in an episode reminiscent of when Sarah Palin was asked to name the newspapers that she read, Pena Nieto struggled at a literary fair to name three books that had influenced him. And, when he was criticized for the flub by the Mexican media and the country's intelligentsia, his daughter made matters worse by insisting, on Twitter, that the story was about nothing more than class envy. You don't say this sort of thing in Mexico, a country of the very rich and the very poor with nary a middle class between them.

Soon thereafter, in an interview with a Spanish newspaper, Pena Nieto admitted that he didn't know the price of a package of tortillas -- the equivalent of when U.S. politicians are asked to show they can relate to everyday Americans by citing the price of a loaf of bread. When criticized for being out of touch, he made matters worse by insisting chauvinistically that he wasn't "the woman of the household." He later had to apologize.

More recently, Pena Nieto admitted in another interview that he was unfaithful to his late wife and fathered two children with two different women during his marriage.

And all this drama involves just one candidate. If Americans at any point get bored with the U.S. presidential election, they can always look to Mexico where election-year politics are anything but boring.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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