Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part Prospect Journal series on the unrest in Mexico. The first part can be found here.
By Alejandro Inzunza
“Optimistic and encouraging” were the words Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto used to describe Mexico’s economic prospects in Shanghai this week. The president had arrived in China three days prior to participate in the XII Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) before heading to Australia to attend this year’s G20 Leader’s Summit in Brisbane. As the president embarked on trade missions during some of Mexico’s most tumultuous times in recent memory, one can’t help but wonder if the same words can be used to reference the nation’s sociopolitical future as well.
A Glaring Absence at the Summit
Polemically elected with 38 percent of the vote in 2012, President Peña and his administration have been the subject of widespread debate and domestic criticism since his electoral victory. A member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for over 70 years, and currently controls a plurality in both houses of Congress, Peña has pursued several ambitious reforms that have made him a divisive figure at home while earning him notable attention abroad. Although the president has made strong efforts to change how Mexico is perceived in the world, domestic woes are increasingly eroding the positive narrative of his administration.
During his first two years in office, economic growth has been stagnant and crime and extortion remain on the rise. A breakdown of official statistics reveals that a staggering 34% of Mexicans were victims of criminal acts in 2013 and that 94% of crimes go unreported.
Yet despite the president’s divisiveness, prominent supporters wonder why Mexicans have taken up protest against their federal government and are quick to defend it. After all, the ‘Imperial Couple’—the political couple alleged to be the authors of the kidnapping and possible execution of the 43 missing students—belonged to Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)—a major opposition party on the political left—not the PRI. Controversial as they may be, supporters of the regime are right to point out the relevance of Jose Luis Abarca’s political allegiances and their connections to his alleged crimes. The PRD’s control of Guerrero’s governorship and state legislature raises questions about the nature of Abarca’s relationship with his former party and whether or not he managed to act without tacit or explicit support from its current members.
Calls for an investigation into Abarca’s political links can therefore be justified. Yet an investigation can only succeed if the process remains transparent, occurring under the watchful eye of the public and under supervision of external independent groups that can insure an impartial oversight. Although not investigating party officials risks permitting the guilty to evade justice, while fostering more unaccountability, a partisan inquiry can easily become a political persecution in legal disguise. While arguments that favor investigating Abarca’s links and party have merit, the claim that Peña and his administration are blameless rings hollow given the circumstances and nature of the regime.
Much of the current discontent stems from the belated and tone-deaf reaction of the president and his administration. The outrage over the fate and disappearance of the 43 missing students has only been amplified by the way in which the federal government has responded to the tragedy: Federal agencies took more than a week to get involved in the investigation, and the president himself took ten days to address the situation in a public manner. Peña has not yet visited the still-mourning state of Guerrero, nor commented on the issue in independent media outlets. While the president welcomed the parents of the missing students, he did so a month after the massacre had occurred. Additionally, his recent visit to China and Australia prompted critics to remark that the president was leaving the country during a time of crisis and seemed callous given the preceding events.
Peña’s guilt therefore lies not in his direct involvement but in the negligence that he and his administration have displayed in handling the aftermath. The president has displayed an inability to lead at a moment when the country desperately needs guidance and hope. Regardless of party, the nation’s highest office is the only unifying source of national leadership in the face of crisis and adversity. Enrique Peña Nieto has so far failed to exercise that authority, and through that failure has exposed a leadership deficit that only compounds the suffering of a nation in shock. To make matters worse, his attendance of the summit coincided with the release of controversial reports regarding the first family’s $7 million home.
Nicknamed Peña’s ‘White House’ in reference to its color, the stunning property is legally owned by Ingeniería Inmobiliaria del Centro, a company that was awarded lucrative contracts during Peña’s term as Governor of the State of Mexico. The company also forms part of Grupo Higa, a corporation whose construction arm was part of the Chinese-led consortium that recently won a $3.7 billion contract to build Mexico’s first bullet train. The contract was abruptly canceled after mounting criticism and suspicion surrounding the transparency and timeframe of the bidding process: the winning bid was the only proposal submitted.
Scandal over the house has only grown since the president’s spokesperson revealed that the estate actually belongs to Mexico’s first lady, former actress Angélica Rivera. The administration attempted to quell doubts through a press release stating the property is currently being paid for by the first lady, and that her long career has made her financially solvent and capable of affording such an estate. Ironically, this development has only raised further questions.
Rivera also owns a $2.2 million mansion adjacent to the ‘White House’ and is not, unlike the president, legally required to disclose her assets under Mexican law. Fresh revelations that the properties were actually donated to the first lady by Televisa—Mexico’s predominant media conglomerate—as part of her compensation package have only raised further doubts. Inquiries into the matter are currently hampered by government claims that the first lady’s financial information is classified.
Given that Mexico’s ‘White House’ is literally owned by a contractor that has benefitted under Peña’s rule, and was gifted to his wife by a media monopoly with links to his party, it is no surprise that the sumptuous estate is generating so much controversy in a country where half of the population lives in poverty.
Protests and Deja Vu
All of this brings us back to the protests currently stirring Mexico and partly explains why the current administration has become a target of social unrest. Sparked by the disappearance and likely murder of the 43 students, the demonstrations are turning increasingly violent. Furthermore, they have only grown in their frequency and size. Protestors have torched Iguala’s city hall, burned Guerrero’s state capitol, set fire to the PRI’s Guerrero headquarters, and attempted to set the National Palace aflame. Additionally, demonstrators have temporarily blocked major airports and roads.
It would be irresponsible, however, to simply reduce recent developments to some of the violent and controversial acts that have been committed. The vast majority of the demonstrations, while certainly disruptive, have been peaceful and civil. The disparity in the nature of recent events can only be understood as a function of the diversity present in the participants: primarily led by the families of the missing students, protests have been composed of students, teachers, rural workers, union members, activists, and other citizens who are fed up with the system or their government in general. They span a wide range of ages, political allegiances, and socioeconomic status.
It is no mystery then that different manners though which individuals express discontent have been present in the demonstrations, and that the most violent acts are the ones grabbing the headlines. It is worth mentioning that that the families of the missing 43 have denounced violence and called for peaceful discourse in the name of their children. Moderates have been quick to brand the violent acts as outliers or committed by agent provocateurs, with the intention of committing crimes that would in turn justify a government clampdown.
The reality of the situation is likely somewhere in the middle. The presence a large number of individuals who have come to see violence as the only means through which the system can change cannot be ignored. Many Mexicans are tired of the corruption and impunity that plagues the nation, and have long since come to see violence as the only method by which they can achieve what their institutions have proved incapable of delivering on their behalf. Although I do not share this viewpoint nor support those that do, it would also be irresponsible not to acknowledge its existence.
Social movements occur frequently in Mexico, but rarely result in meaningful long-term change. The ongoing protests, though large and consistent in their numbers, presently lack mechanisms that can ease the achievement of their goals. Despite the current momentum, a lack of unified leadership threatens to dilute the potential of the demonstrations to achieve lasting political and social change. It also allows independently committed acts—such as acts of violence—to be easily attributed to the movement and therefore undermine its legitimacy. An identifiable group of protest organizers could shape and organize the movement, offer a clear view of what it intends to do, and draw clear distinctions between the acts of protestors and those who would undercut its message through violence. Above all, a unified leadership is necessary for the development of social activism to converge into a political alternative that citizens can support. Although a large segment within the society rejects the effectiveness of current institutions, the only way capitalize on protests to institute change is for them to mobilize inside the political arena, and play the game.
Given the serious deficiencies in the answers provided so far by the federal government in the Ayotzinapa Case, the controversy surrounding the Peña Administration, and indignation over recent clashes between police and students inside Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), major marches are currently planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution this November 20. The parents of the missing students are calling on citizens to join in solidarity and to march with them toward the city’s central square. Separately, students are also calling for actions to block access to Mexico City’s International Airport to coincide with the demonstrations.
While calling for the demonstration to remain orderly and civil, President Peña has reminded the nation that the state ultimately has the right to restore order by force. The eerie message reminded many of former President Diaz Ordaz, the former PRI president that notoriously suppressed a student movement by force.
As calls for the president’s resignation build and are analyzed by the press, one thing undoubtedly remains clear: there is a deeply rooted discontent currently manifest in Mexican society regarding the state of the nation and its trajectory. In a country chronically afflicted by violence and unrest, Ayotzinapa has painfully struck a nerve. The protests reflect popular desperation, and stem from events caused by institutional decay. A growing number of Mexicans are exasperated by a system that, out of his own political ambition, Enrique Peña Nieto ultimately heads. The president must remember that not even the most ambitious reforms can flourish without order, the rule of law, and the consent of the citizenry. As his legitimacy slowly erodes, Peña is increasingly facing a situation that might prove to be the defining moment of his legacy.
Photo by Presidencia de la República Mexicana