MEXICO CITY – As he heads to Washington on Monday to meet with Barack Obama, Enrique Pena Nieto leaves behind a year that was hardly what he had envisioned.
The Mexican president and his team started 2014 carrying out a slew of newly passed reforms, from breaking up telecommunications monopolies to opening the nation’s energy sector, earning him international plaudits, including a Time magazine cover with his image above the caption “Saving Mexico.”
Then came a 1-2-3 punch of scandals: Soldiers killing 22 civilians in a questionable “shootout”; the abduction and presumed murder of 43 college students, allegedly at the hands of local officials and police in league with a drug cartel; and revelations that Pena Nieto and his treasury secretary live in luxury homes built and financed by a favourite government contractor.
Pena Nieto’s meeting with Obama at the White House on Tuesday comes amid what was supposed to be “Mexico’s moment,” a new era of transparency and reform.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets since the 43 college students disappeared Sept. 26. Even institutions normally cautious about criticizing the government, including the Roman Catholic Church, have spoken out, and a Mexican protester even disrupted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, to draw attention to the tragedy.
“The protests are an expression of people fed up with impunity, and indignant at the complicity between some authorities and criminals,” said Luis Raul Gonzalez, president of the normally politic Human Rights Commission, speaking directly to Pena Nieto at a recent public event.
When Pena Nieto took office two years ago, he promised Mexico would see a new Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for 71 years, often through coercion and corruption. After losing the presidency in 2000, the party portrayed itself as repentant and reconstructed.
Disillusioned by 12 years of opposition party rule, many Mexican voters returned to the PRI on the theory it at least knows how to govern.
But the purported “new PRI” has turned out to be younger politicians operating with the old playbook. Though its leaders were lauded for passing reforms, they had nothing to fall back on when violence knocked them off their message of economic growth.
They sent police to crack down on protesters and called the unrest a plot to “destabilize” the government and undermine the reforms.
Pena Nieto told the country it was time to “move beyond” the case of the 43 students just weeks after their abduction, and he took a month to meet with their families.
The administration has tried to explain away the president’s $7 million mansion by saying it belonged to his wife, former soap opera actress Angelica Rivera, and it said Treasury Secretary Luis Videgaray’s bought his house before he officially took office, although he was part of Pena Nieto’s transition team.
Yet he is facing a Mexico much changed in the years since the PRI left office, when the country was still largely isolated, had very little investigative media and no citizen watchdogs armed with cellphone cameras and social media.
Mexicans have responded irreverently to Pena Nieto’s defences, which they have seen as arrogance and disconnect. One protest sign declared that it isn’t demonstrations that are destabilizing Mexico but “your narco-government corruption.”
Cabinet chief Aurelio Nuno admitted to the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the government didn’t have an adequate plan to deal with insecurity because it hadn’t understood the dimensions of the problem. Nevertheless, he said the answer was in the economic reforms.
Pena Nieto maintained the strategy late Sunday when he delivered a New Year’s message acknowledging “a difficult year.”
“The violence of organized crime hit the country once again,” he said, adding that Mexico “can’t continue the same.” But his answer is that 2015 would be a year of lower gas, electricity and telephone bills, thanks to the reforms.
Pena Nieto’s economic strategy has yet to pay off in investment or growth — one of the main reasons his approval ratings recently hit 38 per cent, the lowest for any Mexican president since the peso crisis of 20 years ago. Oil prices are in the basement just as Mexico is opening its energy sector to foreign bidders, and job growth is stagnant.
Once-favourable coverage in media abroad has turned scathing.
Pressing Videgaray in an interview, CNBC correspondent Michelle Caruso-Cabrera said, “If Barbara Bush were living in a house built by Halliburton, her husband would have been impeached.”
All levels of government have been sullied, with mayors and state police found to be in cahoots with organized crime, and prosecutors more interested in solving political problems than crimes.
The military, which has spearheaded anti-drug efforts, was stained by allegations that soldiers shot suspects who had already surrendered, when the army initially said it killed them in a fierce shootout in June. Federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam didn’t investigate until three months later, after news media found witnesses who contradicted the official version.
Mexico’s major parties are all viewed negatively, leaving few options for those disappointed with Pena Nieto. The city officials directly implicated in the attack on the students and state officials who carried out the initial, floundering investigation were backed by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party that has long crusaded against PRI corruption.
In his Sunday address, Pena Nieto promised to be a better listener, and to “combat corruption and impunity and strengthen transparency.”
But once again, he offered no specifics.
Katherine Corcoran is chief of The Associated Press’ bureau in Mexico City.