Once Upon (This) Time in Mexico

Pena Nieto campaigns

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Once Upon (This) Time in Mexico
| published November 29, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto arrived in office two years ago amidst the highest of hopes for reform and moderation. Pena Nieto won election (narrowly, and amidst complaints of vote fraud) in large part because of his ability to communicate a simple equation of salvation to Mexican voters: lawlessness and chaos will forever equal economic stagnation, poverty, and despair. His platform: rid the police of corruption, eradicate drug cartels, end the violence—and Mexico’s economy would break free of its persistent limitations and move easily and aggressively into the competitive arena of the global markets. The result would be jobs, and an end to poverty—not to mention better relations with Mexico’s neighbor to the north.

Pena Nieto also campaigned as a member of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), a political party whose central resume point was that it “knows how to govern.” Voters turned toward this argument as an act of pragmatism in a country where organized crime and police collusion seem almost a permanent part of the societal structure.

But for Pena Nieto, the cycle of corruption, violence and hopelessness now seems just as mired in the ugly fabric of modern Mexico as it has for his predecessors, and even the national outrage over recent violence has not been enough to shake the system.

In September, at least 43 students and young people were murdered in what appears to be a massacre, and the killers are alleged to be members of a violent drug cartel. Worse, those students—all would-be teachers and reformers—were abducted by members of the police department of the city of Iguala, a Guerrero city about halfway between Mexico City and the Pacific Ocean.

According to what is now known, those 43 students were kidnapped by uniformed police, then—according to some witnesses (including a few members of the police)—handed over to the criminal gang, whereupon the students were shot or hacked to death, their bodies later burned and buried in a local garbage dump. According to one gang member detained by law enforcement, some of the students were still alive when the mass incineration was conducted. But in a Mexico where local politics and police corruption can so easily outweigh even moral outrage, the story gets worse. Neither the local gang members nor the corrupt local cops instigated the kidnappings and massacre; the mass murders came upon the direct orders of the wife of Iguala’s Mayor, Maria de los Angeles Pineda.

And Mexican investigative journalists and law enforcement officials in Mexico City have reason to believe the mayor and his wife have direct connections to the drug cartels and other criminal operations in Guerrero. Why did the mayor’s wife order the murders? Because the students were apparently travelling to the site of a speaking engagement by de los Angeles Pineda later that day, and she told local cops and local gang members to “teach them a lesson.”

The resulting scandal and investigation has widened, and enraged the nation. Only a handful of arrests have been made—but three of those arrested have testified that they were present at the massacre, participating in the shootings, setting the bodies ablaze with gasoline and diesel truck fuel, and even working diligently to ensure that the flames remained active when it appeared nothing flammable was left in the landfill.

Some critics complain, however, that the “drug cartel” explanation is both to pat and too easy a way to deflect blame from de los Angeles Pineda, her husband—the mayor—and corrupt local cops.

The President has attempted to strike back with a simple but radical solution: a complete top-down overhaul of Mexico’s judicial system and police structure.

In a major speech last week televised to the nation, Pena Nieto said he wants to introduce legislation creating a national mandate: a simple, streamlined federal law—or set of laws—making it absolutely illegal for police, security forces or military personnel to engage in corrupt behavior or to offer collusion with gangs or drug cartels. This might seem self-obvious in many developed countries (think of the national outrage in the U.S. over the shooting of an unarmed citizen by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri), but in Mexico’s patchwork, byzantine system, many police officers and military personnel operate outside of the same laws which govern civilians, and many police and para-military security teams operate with virtual impunity. State and local police also do not fall clearly under federal laws or even basic national guidelines, making it sometimes impossible to prosecute corruption even when there is ample demonstrable proof. This antiquated system works easily in favor of the cartels and gangs, who make bribery and blackmail a basic part of the business template.

Piecemeal attempts at reform by many of Pena Nieto’s predecessors have largely failed. Though a few gains can be made in one state or city, ground gained for reform is easily lost in some other area. Mexico’s organized crime elements have become increasingly violent in efforts to enforce territorial control, and in some places local police are little more than the paid security apparatus of the gangs and cartels. Cops who get paid local salaries of as little $400 a month can easily earn 10 to 20 times that amount through cash bribes, and because of so many complex exemptions to federal law, prosecutors and government officials in Mexico City can do little to bring justice. And when bribes are not enough to coerce local police, threats against individual cops and their families often suffice.

So Pena Nieto wants to eliminate all those layers, competing jurisdictions, and overlapping boundaries. All police—state or local—would be required to submit to one set of national laws regarding behavior. No exceptions. No one gets a pass, and no one gets a get-out-of-jail-free card. Pena Nieto also wants to create a unified chain-of-command for the cops; eradicate all those layers in the patchwork quilt—and all cops answer ultimately to Mexico City. And Pena Nieto wants to create—once and for all—uniform laws for the prosecutors and the courts to make charges stick. One little known but troubling fact about Mexico’s court system: only about 2% of crimes which include an arrest result in a conviction. That means that 98% of perpetrators walk free, often within days. Meanwhile, drug violence and organized crime has resulted—by even conservative estimates—in more than 55,000 deaths from 2006 to 2012, with nearly a fifth of those deaths taking place within a short walk of the border with the U.S.

But Pena Nieto’s noble proposals for reform may meet tough political resistance—and not just from those who most benefit from the corruption. Pena Nieto won the presidency only after a difficult and contentious electoral challenge. Pena Nieto pulled in a little more than 38% of the national vote in 2012, but there were widespread charges of electoral fraud—especially by those who were surprised to see a return by the same party which had previously governed for 71 years. The PRI, which had—more or less—held power in Mexico since 1929, bolstered by a decades-long era dubbed the “Mexican Miracle,” a period of almost continuous economic growth, industrial development, public works projects and middle class expansion.

But the PRI saw setbacks in the late 90s and in the early aught years, though it remained a viable political force. It lost its continuous string of presidential victories in the elections of 2000. The history of the PRI is one of centrism, or at times, center-left, though Pena Nieto’s victory was widely interpreted as a resurgence of the middle way—a rejection of the traditional, business-as-usual approach to crime and corruption in favor of a fresh, professional approach to reform. Pena Nieto’s campaign promises and inaugural pledges included accountability and openness in government, and a vigorous assault on the forces of organized crime and police corruption. His unabashed appeal to younger voters brought generational changes to the polling places, and his youthful good looks, undeniable charisma, and challenges to modernize Mexico elicited many direct comparisons with John F. Kennedy, as well as comparisons to Barack Obama’s powerful appeal to a new generation of American voters in 2008.

But not all younger voters were moved by his style and his oratory, and many student groups protested the PRI, saying that the party which had ruled over Mexico for decades was a party too closely associated with repression and corruption to be rewarded with a return to power. Other opponents considered Pena Nieto a sham, phony candidate with little genuine intellectual capacity for the complexities of governance. As a candidate in 2011 and 2012, he made frequent gaffes and boo boos—mistaking the names of state capitals, mixing up authors with their books, misidentifying sources of quotes, and making a mishmash of common acronyms. (A friend in Alabama who grew up in Mexico City once told me Pena Nieto was “the Dan Quayle of Mexican politics…great suits, good looking, well-groomed, and clueless.”)

Pena Nieto’s opponents—in a replay of similar accusations made in the United States in 2008—have said that his election was heavily weighted by the forces of media and journalistic adoration. Complaints that his presidency is owed mostly to media bias continue even to this day, and many of those who were suspicious of him in 2012 say, with some satisfaction, that his failure to achieve even a fraction of his lofty goals indicates both Pena Nieto’s naiveté in the realities of Mexican governance and his substitution of style over substance. Reporters, TV personalities, writers and editorialists in Mexico loved him in 2012; the honeymoon ended long ago, and now there are those who question his ability to bring real reform to Mexico.

To make matters worse for Pena Nieto, scandal surrounding his wife’s sprawling $7 million home in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood has taken its toll on the president’s ability to stay on message, and have fueled concerns by his reformers that he has become tone deaf to the plight of the millions who live in poverty in his own country. The scandal has also undercut his ability to focus fully on assuaging the national outrage over the murdered students in Iguala, and the thousands of others who have disappeared under similar circumstances.

Still, Pena Nieto remains determined and stoic. In his speech last week he declared that Mexico must agree to radical, top-down change.

“Mexico cannot continue like this,” the President said, “after Iguala, Mexico has to change.” His proposal to dissolve more than a thousand local and regional police departments—then fold them all under a state and federal command structure, will surely meet with resistance, though many analysts say it may be the only solution to the epidemic of official corruption. Pena Nieto is also asking to empower the Mexican Congress with the ability to completely dissolve local governments when infiltration by organized crime is extensive. Federal authorities would then appoint replacements chosen by an independent commission, or cede some of the local responsibilities over to each state. According to the BBC and media outlets in Mexico, this revamping would start first in four states with the worst records for drug violence and gang activity (Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guerrero).

Mass protests have taken place all across Mexico since the murders in Iguala in late September, and Pena Nieto is under intense political pressure to see that justice is served in a nation with perhaps as many as 100 thousand gang members and the second highest-murder rate in the world.

To make matters worse, other murders and kidnappings have been reported since the Iguala massacre, including the discovery by state police of 11 badly burned bodies alongside a rural road in Guerrero. To some observers, this is an indication that the national outrage over Iguala has not translated into a temporary moratorium by cartels and corrupt police on extreme violence in Mexico.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Two Nations, Indivisible; Shannon K. O'Neil; book review by Thursday Review staff; January 9, 2014.

Immigration and the Human Dimension; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 4, 2013.