Job: President of Mexico
Reputation: Telegenic celebrity politician with serious credibility issues
‘It would be unforgivable if El Chapo escapes again,’ Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced back in February 2014 when resisting calls for the notorious drug baron’s extradition to the US. By the end of July the following year, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán had slipped into a sophisticated mile-long purpose-built tunnel and escaped from Mexico’s most secure penitentiary. Ever since December 2012, when Nieto restored to power the kleptocratic Party of Institutional Revolution (PRI), things have gone this way: sweeping promises with meagre results.
Mexicans had already had 71 years to get to know the corruption and systemic human rights abuses that always accompany PRI rule. But amid cries of voter fraud, 38 per cent of the electorate supposedly cast their ballots for Nieto – the new pretty-boy face from an old PRI family in central Mexico. Nieto’s programme was the usual boilerplate neoliberalism, promising security for foreign investors and privatized prosperity from which all would benefit. Fatigue with former President Felipe Calderón’s prosecution of the US-funded ‘war on drugs’ was certainly a factor – some 60,000 Mexicans died on his watch in the futile effort to keep drugs from crossing the border. ‘Poor Mexico,’ lamented Porfirio Diaz, Mexican president back in the 19th century, ‘so far from God and so close to the United States.’ Perhaps PRI voters had a certain nostalgia for the Pax Mafiosa that had accompanied previous PRI governments – make a deal with organized crime and maybe they won’t kill so many of us.
But times have changed, and both the structure of crime gangs and the nature of state power have splintered, with various business factions – both legal and illegal – taking control of different parts of the Mexican state, particularly the judiciary and the security forces. So, despite attempted manipulation of murder-rate statistics, drug-related violence has not decreased. In fact, the number of disappearances and politically motivated murders has shot up. It is estimated that 98.3 per cent of crime goes unpunished.
The focal point of protest against Nieto’s regime has been the mishandling of the mass kidnapping (and presumed murder) of 43 young activist students from a teachers’ college in Iguala. Nieto and his government first downplayed the event (pesky troublemakers, after all) but outraged families, huge demonstrations and growing international condemnation kept the heat on. An unlikely official investigation blamed corrupt local police and drug dealers and threw a couple of local municipal officials under the bus, but an international panel appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the official version not credible. This has left Mexicans wondering how far up the ladder murderous responsibility lies and whether the military (which has a base close to the kidnapping site) is directly involved.
Low cunning: Nieto gets by as akind of fairy-tale prince celebrity married to glamorous telenovella actress Angelica Rivera. But will the show be renewed for next season?
Sense of humour: Nieto didn’t know the price of the lowly tortilla (a staple diet for poor Mexicans) because, after all, ‘I am not the lady of the household’.
Kidnapping has become a national sport in Mexico, with tens of thousands taken every year. Commercial motives usually lie behind it, but an increasing number of activists and critical journalists are also being disappeared or murdered outright. By whom? Finding out seems to be a low priority for Nieto’s government. Since the days when he was a state governor, Nieto has been connected to political repression, most notably against the activist town of San Salvador Atenco in 2006, when police used killing and rape in a violent but unsuccessful attempt to break a highway blockade – a favourite Mexican protest tactic.
Nieto is now the most unpopular president in the history of Mexican polling. It’s not all his fault, though, as the plummeting price of oil on which Mexico depends has soured economic fortunes. Governing and reforming Mexico, with its gross inequalities and violent political culture, will never be an easy task, no matter who is president. But real change will likely come from below, where a stubborn social-justice movement has earned its spurs in the face of endemic corruption and murderous repression.
Sources: Al Jazeera America; Council on Hemispheric Affairs (coha.org); upsidedownworld.org; Wikipedia;nacla.org; the Guardian.