What Mexico’s President Must Do
President Enrique Peña Nieto has shown remarkable leadership in passing key reforms to reanimate the economy and further the development of Mexico. But now he must act quickly to re-establish his political credibility and limit damage to his moral standing. The present crisis requires it.
Thousands of young people have been marching in the streets of Mexico since the kidnapping and murder of 43 students (now confirmed by the DNA of a burned body) from a college in Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero. According to Mexico’s attorney general, the crime was committed by professional killers working for a narco- gang and under the orders of the former mayor of the town of Iguala, who was a member of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Although most of these criminals, including the mayor and his wife, have been arrested, the student protesters are blaming the Peña Nieto government of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and questioning its legitimacy. They are even demanding that the legally elected president resign from office.
Although most Mexicans may not support so extreme a demand as resignation, the popularity level of the president has sunk quite low, and not only because of the slow response to this atrocious crime. The suspicion of a conflict of interest over his wife’s partial purchase of a luxury mansion has further clouded the situation for Mr. Peña Nieto. Distrustful of government and fed up with the violence and insecurity unleashed by the drug cartels, Mexicans feel a profound moral and political resentment at a situation that those of us who struggled for the coming of democracy at the turn of the millennium never expected to confront. While there have been incidents of violence among the protesters, most of the demonstrations have been peaceful but intensely angry. And their anger is justified.
“No vale nada la vida, la vida no vale nada” (Worth nothing is life, life is worth nothing) goes a famous Mexican song whose subject is macho boastfulness but whose words sadly reflect the deadly realities in my country. There have been about 100,000 deaths from criminal violence in this new millennium. In the state of Tamaulipas on the northeastern border, civil authority is almost nonexistent, and journalists, bloggers and even tweeters are routinely assassinated. In Guerrero, more than a dozen criminal gangs are operating, and mayors and local police often collaborate with them. In entire areas of the states of Michoacán, Morelos and Mexico (a state adjacent to the capital), kidnappings, assaults and extortion are endemic. Ninety-eight percent of the crimes have gone unpunished. It is this near-total impunity that is the country’s foremost problem.
The violence recalls earlier periods of Mexican history, as during the war against bandits initiated by the dictator Porfirio Díaz (who ruled from 1876-1911) and fought by a merciless mounted police force, the Rurales. It even reminds us of the Mexican Revolution itself, which left a long trail of blood until a new dictatorship was imposed by the PRI, founded in 1929. The long rule of the PRI became a source of corruption that led, in the final decades of the 20th century, to the enrichment of politicians with ties to major drug traffickers.
Many of us believed that all this would disappear with the advent of democracy in 2000, when the PRI fell from power after 71 years. We were wrong. The sudden limitations put on the near-monarchical powers of the president had the positive effect of liberating legal local powers (governors and mayors), but it also gave new strength to illegal local powers (drug traffickers and organized crime operatives), who recognized and utilized the weakness of control within the new democratic state to expand their national influence.
How can the violence and crime be driven back and defeated? The old means of dictatorship are not desirable — nor even thinkable. Freedom of expression, social networking and a solid belief in human rights won’t allow it. Instead, the government must forge a political and social consensus to greatly strengthen the rule of law within the framework of our young and fragile democracy.
But to do so, it must possess political and moral credibility – and at the moment it is precisely this credibility that is in question.
To try to ease the crisis, President Peña Nieto has proposed a series of measures that would recentralize power. He wants to eliminate more than 1,800 local police forces (to be integrated into the police forces of our 32 states) and to legally remove municipal governments linked to organized crime. Some of these proposals point in the right direction, but much more is needed, especially a greater professionalization of all services connected with the rule of law, from criminal investigation to the courts and prisons.
Right now the president must make changes in his cabinet, for example by removing the secretary responsible for the awarding of a lucrative high-speed rail contract that many of the president’s critics claim was granted as a quid pro quo to the builder of the mansion that the first lady was buying as their home. Although she is now selling the property and the rail contract has been canceled, Mr. Peña Nieto must acknowledge the shadows that have been cast over his administration by the appearance of scandal.
This is perhaps the most difficult request I would make: that the president appear before the nation, recognize his errors and offer an apology to the people of Mexico. Nothing lends more nobility to a person in power than recognizing his own humanity. And no strategy of reforms, even the most rational, can replace the legitimacy of ethical leadership, especially in times of crisis. Incarnating such leadership should be Mr. Peña Nieto’s immediate priority.