Mexico: A President in distress

09/29/2016

The president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, goes from crisis to crisis. After a promising start in 2012, his popularity plummeted and is now less than 20 percent. His one and only achievement was to bring together leaders and congress members of the principal parties to launch and approve important structural reforms in just one year; these, he said, promised a just and equal Mexico with a bright future and well-being for all.

The reform of transparency, without which the rest would be impossible, was meant to combat corruption and inequality. Yet Congressional committees, in detailing its functioning, made changes that effectively protected the status quo and the privileges of corporations, millionaires, politicians and vested interests, including organized crime. As a result, almost all the reforms came to nothing. At the same time, oil prices fell and energy reform, which would have strengthened the economy and was the star of Peña’s program, failed.

In 2014, during the reform debacle, news came out that the First Lady had an $8.5 million mansion, thanks to privileged treatment from a building contractor who was a favorite of Peña, who was a governor at the time. Although Peña downplayed the deal, it was evident that corruption and conflicts of interest existed at the highest level. Mrs. Peña gave an ill-advised explanation on television and the president named an anti-corruption prosecutor to investigate himself, his wife and his treasury secretary. After a lengthy investigation, the prosecutor found nothing illegal.

Peña also quietly continued the so-called war on drugs of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, which had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths over six years. Under Peña, deaths and disappearances continued. In 2014, in Iguala, drug gangs “disappeared” 42 students while protected by the police, military and other authorities. Earlier, the army executed 22 members of organized crime in Tlatlaya. According to witnesses and investigations of the National Commission on Human Rights, there have been other extrajudicial executions, none of which the government has explained.  

The human rights crisis is reflected in the judicial and penitentiary systems’ delays and abuses; corruption in the courts has led to thousands of unresolved cases and more than half of prisoners awaiting trial. The majority of these prisoners are innocent, but have confessed under torture. Others have been found guilty because of administrative errors or corruption, or were accused of minor crimes like petty theft. Then came the escape of el “Chapo” Guzmán through a tunnel out of a maximum-security prison. (He was captured months later, with help from the United States.)

Mexico has signed international accords on human rights, yet experts from the Organization of American States, the United Nations and Human Watch International investigating cases like the ones mentioned here have found grave violations of human rights and due process. The Peña government has responded with denial, evasion and excuses.

With the production and price of oil at a record low and the world economy in crisis, Mexico is growing at less than the projected rate, resulting in a rise in poverty, unemployment and criminal activity and an increase in the informal economy. This, along with growing corruption among authorities, is generating violence and socioeconomic inequality, putting the Peña government in a complicated situation. To top it off, it recently came out that Peña’s university thesis contained 30 percent plagiarized material. 

To make matters worse, Peña invited Donald Trump to visit the capital, where he treated him like a dignitary and allowed him to set the date and agenda and direct the following press briefing. No one understood this folly. Apparently, he did it to ingratiate himself with an anti-Mexican, possibly President Trump; perhaps it was a masterstroke to recover his lost credibility and popularity. But Peña was so timid and respectful that his image wound up sinking further, while Trump’s was strengthened. The ridicule was enormous. Unanimous and ruthless criticism rained down on Peña, both in Mexico and abroad, and no one defended him. Some even asked him to resign for ineptitude and treason.

Peña’s response was to fire the treasury secretary, confirming the suspicion that it had been his “brilliant idea” to invite Trump. Now he repeats that he is the victim of bad press and popular negativity and that no one recognizes his “enormous achievements.” 

The remaining 27 months of his presidency will not be easy; no Mexican president has been so unpopular. And, in 2018, he will be trapped in the game of presidential succession: in the tradition of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, the president names the party’s candidate in his last year, when he has only his past accomplishments to stand on. Peña’s dismal record will weaken his candidate, who will face others who have already begun informal campaigns.  Since they distrust Peña and politicians in general, the Mexican people will vote for the lesser evil while the parties and candidates invent still more tricks to deceive and strive for power, which to them is just an enormous business.

 

Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and native of Puebla, Mexico.