Society is Peña Nieto’s ally

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 2, 2014


The political crisis triggered by the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero has put the government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto between a rock and a hard place. Though the violence, impunity and corruption involved in the apparent crime and subsequent cover-up has highlighted the shortcomings of Mexican democracy, the expression of public discontent also points to a stronger and more vocal civil society. For Peña Nieto to regain the trust of the people, he will need to push forward with reforms that strengthen democratic institutions and assign a greater role to the organized civil society. If he succeeds, he can be a truly transformative president.


The facts of the criminal case are confusing and hard to believe. Forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa College near Iguala in the state of Guerrero were on their way to a political rally. They were detained by the local police and, allegedly, handed over to a local paramilitary group that presumably killed them and made their remains disappear.


The local paramilitary group is believed to have acted under orders from then-mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, a member of the left-wing Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Despite having fled with his wife, Abarca has since been captured and is under the custody of the federal government. The scandal has forced the resignation of the governor of Guerrero Angel Aguirre. Protestors have also called for the resignation of other officials, including Peña Nieto himself.


Since declaring a war on drugs, former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) governed over an increasingly violent country. Drug and other crime-related deaths climbed above 20,000 annually under Calderon. Though the government made some progress in curbing drug-trafficking, the Mexican population perceived that the situation got worse.


In the 2012 presidential election, Peña Nieto won with a message that rejected Calderon’s war against drug cartels. As the candidate of the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI), Peña Nieto benefitted from the perception that the return of the party that ruled the country uninterrupted from 1928 to 2000 would restore social and political order. Yet, because PRI rule was also characterized by corruption, many people feared that Peña Nieto would simply work out a peace deal with the drug cartels.


Upon taking office, Peña Nieto displayed a commendable ability to get reforms through a divided Congress. Making concessions to the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist PRD, Peña Nieto passed an ambitious energy reform and made significant progress towards enacting a reform of the political system. One key concession, agreed to presumably under pressure from PAN, was not to pursue the creation of a truth commission to investigate the surge in drug-related homicides under the Calderón administration.


That decision ended up strengthening the perception of widespread impunity and might have influenced the calculations made by those responsible for the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students in September.


The scandal has weakened Peña Nieto. Accusations of corruption and cover-ups by government officials have multiplied. Even the president’s family has been implicated in wrongdoing. The president’s wife, soap opera actor Angélica Rivera, has been involved in a real estate scandal. A family house was bought by Rivera in triangulation with a company that won hefty discretionary government contracts. The mortgage of a second residence bought by Rivera in Miami was fully paid at once after Rivera married Peña Nieto. Because these scandals erode the president's credibility and strengthen the widespread belief that political corruption is common, Peña Nieto has been forced into a defensive position by the Iguala massacre and the accusations against his wife.


As pressure keeps growing, Peña Nieto will have to take decisive action to avoid being drowned in a never-ending crisis. As the government lacks credibility and formal institutions are suspected of being used by the political establishment to advance its own goals, Peña Nieto has to look elsewhere for allies to overcome the crisis.


There is no better ally today in Mexico than an emerging and increasingly strong civil society. Social organizations have stood up to defend human rights and demand that justice be served. Because it is highly likely that the students are already dead, the demands of those civil organizations are rapidly evolving into demands for political reform. Peña Nieto should take a leadership role and champion those reforms, even if that means giving up some of his own power and turning his back on some historical allies.


If he dares steer the popular discontent into a movement for stronger democratic institutions, Peña Nieto will lose power in the short run, but will build a strong and lasting legacy. If he chooses to weather the storm, the growing discontent might end up rendering him useless for the remainder of his six year term.


It will not be an easy decision. There are costs and risks involved with either option. However, as the Iguala massacre gives more strength to the already vocal civil society, the cost of doing nothing increases faster than the risks of bold reformative and institution-strengthening action.