MEXICO CITY -- Former Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto, leading in polls to become Mexico's next president, has appointed the former chief of Colombia's national police to work as an "external advisor" for public security if he wins the July 1 election.
The appointment of Gen. Oscar Naranjo, announced Thursday, is read as a signal to observers in Mexico and the United States that Peña Nieto would make the pursuit of drug trafficking a high priority amid growing allegations that top members of his party have had ties to organized crime.
Peña Nieto maintains a steady lead in polls as candidate for the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. He called Colombia a model for success in the U.S.-backed fight against drug traffickers.
Naranjo, 55, is credited with helping take down top Colombian trafficker Pablo Escobar in 1993, as well as for recent successes to curtail coca production and battle the country's largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Both Mexico and Colombia are recipients of U.S. security aid.
As he introduced Naranjo, Peña Nieto said that if elected he would seek collaboration with the U.S. on security issues.
"Mexico has accumulated achievements, it's delivered lives, enormous sacrifices," Naranjo said. "Security, understood as a democratic value, is expressed in policies that are totally inclusive, that protect everyone."
Naranjo told the Associated Press that he expects to be traveling regularly between Mexico City and Washington if Peña Nieto wins the election, hinting at closer ties with U.S. drug fighters if the PRI returns to power. It was voted out in 2000 after 71 years.
An official biography of Naranjo distributed to reporters lists him as an "honorary member" of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a point that rivals and political observers have latched on to in recent days.
"Unlike the PRI candidate, who trusts more in a foreigner than in our armed forces, I do trust in Mexico's soldiers," said Josefina Vazquez Mota, candidate of the ruling National Action Party, referring to the current government's military-led campaign against traffickers.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, running under the banner of a leftist coalition, said bringing in Naranjo would violate Mexico's Constitution, which he said prohibits foreigners' participation in national security matters in Mexico.
"What is basically evident here is that the [PRI] is also betting on the same policies of force," Lopez Obrador said.
On Thursday, Naranjo said he would work "non-operationally, outside of hierarchies" in a Peña Nieto administration.
The announcement was made as the former state governor seeks to beef up his security credentials as the campaign heats up heading toward the July 1 election. Drug-related violence is growing during the campaign.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, right, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and Colombian retired Gen. Oscar Naranjo greet each other at a news conference in Mexico City on Thursday. Credit: Christian Palma / Associated Press