By Guillermo Farias
Enrique Peña Nieto’s Presidency is often described as a performance. Elected in 2012, he has presented himself as a modernizing technocrat and reformer capable of bringing about a “Mexican Moment.” From the start of his administration, many have seen him as nothing more than a cleverly packaged optical illusion. A Time Magazine cover from shortly after he was elected showed Peña Nieto standing behind the words “Saving Mexico” was widely ridiculed. However, in recent months, even those that bought into the President’s image are increasingly cynical about his administration’s capacity to govern, which can be seen in his 40 percent approval rating, almost the lowest-ever for a Mexican president. To reverse the trend, the President needs to show that he is capable of making difficult structural changes rather than just crafting, and vigorously protecting, an appealing personal image—as he has done so far.
Peña Nieto’s approval ratings—and carefully honed public image—have suffered as the result of two major recent crises. First, Mexico’s human rights situation has attracted international attention for major atrocities involving the security forces—both among the worst the country has seen in recent years. One involved the killing of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya, in Mexico state in June 2014. The other involved the enforced disappearance of 43 students who were detained by municipal police forces in Iguala, Guerrero state in September 2014. The second crisis was triggered by a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal that exposed close links between senior members of the administration, including the President, First Lady, and the Finance Minister, and a construction company that has won a slew of government contracts. In part, as a result, Peña Nieto’s administration has had to seek new bids for construction of a $3.7 billion high-speed rail link between Mexico City and Queretaro.
In the case of the 43 disappeared students, Peña Nieto’s administration appeared to value public image over substance. President Peña Nieto first publicly responded to the case by asserting that this was an issue for the local government, and therefore not his administration’s problem. Under pressure, the President backtracked, but it still took the Attorney General ten days to open an investigation. At a news conference in November, the Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, announced that three gang members had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, making it difficult to identify bone remains. The human rights community has characterized the declaration as a rush to close the investigation, even if the government’s version of events is plausible. For example, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Right Watch’s Americas Division, sharply criticized the government for declaring that all the students were dead after identifying the remains of just one. The families of the disappeared students are also understandably skeptical and have maintained pressure on the government to identify the remains of all the students before declaring them dead.
The Tlatlaya case follows a similar pattern. Federal prosecutors waited three months to open an investigation into the killing of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya, a small town in Mexico state. The government originally claimed that the 22 people had been killed by soldiers in a shoot-out. That narrative was countered by a report from the National Human Rights Commission asserting that at least 12 of the 22 people were killed execution style by the soldiers after having surrendered. Beyond this, the report also documented abuses by state prosecutors, who threatened to rape three female witnesses of the executions, beat two of them and forced all of them to sign statements exonerating the soldiers. In fact, the federal investigation was only opened after the Latin American edition of Esquire published an interview with one of the witnesses. The Attorney General’s office has charged seven soldiers in the case, as well as a lieutenant for his role in covering up the crime. However, federal prosecutors have so far refused to investigate others for their roles in concealing the massacre.
The administration has similarly tried to minimize and contain the fallout from the conflict of interest accusations exposed by the Wall Street Journal. Both the President and the Finance Minister have denied wrongdoing. At the same time, steps taken by the administration to strengthen conflict of interest laws and improve transparency have been so anemic that hardly anyone considers them serious.
If the administration is serious about improving Mexico’s security and human rights record, tackling entrenched corruption, and avoiding conflicts of interest it should start by making difficult political decisions. First, it should commit itself to creating a truly independent prosecutor’s office and an agency to combat corruption. The second missing element is political accountability. So far, nobody has resigned or stepped forward to take responsibility for the human rights abuses in Tlataya and Iguala or the dodgy business deals.
It will take much more than excellent public relations skills to solve Mexico’s problems. Unfortunately, it seems that Peña Nieto is more interested in managing the fallout from the current crises than he is in addressing their root causes. Without more substantive policy, it is hard not to see the “Mexican Moment” slipping away.
Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
Photo credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Creative Commons