Honeymoon Over for Mexico’s President Peña Nieto

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Since taking office four months ago, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto and his subordinates have been working overtime to forge a more hopeful, less blood-tinged conversation about their country. But that conversation may be coming to an end.

At the onset of his administration in December, Mexican and international media were encouraged to downplay the gangland violence, which has claimed 70,000 lives or more in the past six years, in favor of emphasizing all that’s still going right with politics and the economy.

For the most part, pundits, prognosticators and private citizens have been lining up to tout “Mexico’s moment” — a new dawn brimming with economic promise and political deal making. Almost everyone has seemed eager to change the channel perhaps, in part, because so many of the local media depend on government ads to survive. 

But the applause was not limited to the Mexican press.

“Some in the Obama administration worry that the new president is diverting resources and focus from the drug war. Yet Mr. Peña Nieto is tackling problems that have held back Mexico for a generation, helping to create the economic misery that empowers the drug cartels,” the Washington Post said in a recent editorial. “Washington should be cheering Mexico’s gridlock busting — and taking it as an example.”

This came just a few weeks after the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman’s drooling account of Mexico’s would be surge to economic prominence on the world stage. 

“It’s as if Mexicans subconsciously decided that their drug-related violence is a condition to be lived with and combated but not something to define them any longer,” he wrote in February.

(For a more economic critique of Friedman’s column, go here.)

Fair enough. But the gangsters and security forces are still in the field, slaughtering one another apace. And Mexican news organizations, even those thought to be rooting for Peña Nieto, have started returning it to the front pages and top of the news hour.

Milenio, one of Mexico’s larger media chains, reported this week that the gangland wars claimed 1,025 people in March and nearly 4,000 since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office on December 1. (See Milenio’s graphic below.)

La Jornada, a smaller, left-leaning newspaper, put the tally at more than 2,800 in the past four months, but noted that the numbers “demonstrate that the tendency of executions is rising in the country” compared to last year under former President Felipe Calderon.

“No medium, the Washington Post included, has lauded the Peña Nieto regime for its success in security and the reduction of violence,” Ciro Gomez Leyva, director and prime time anchor of Milenio Televisions news programming, wrote in a recent column. “And it seems that praise won’t arrive soon.

“The monthly average continues being, in round numbers, the same as in the Calderon administration,” Gomez-Leyva wrote.

InSight Crime Analysis

Ignoring the violence is easy. Actually calming the violence is going to take a good while — in a moment of extreme optimism, Peña Nieto recently suggested that his yet-to-gel security strategy will take a year to show results — so the new president and his aides can’t be blamed for trying to change the focus to something more positive in the meantime.

But at some point, what was the previous administration’s “war,” will become Peña Nieto’s own burden. As Alejandro Hope has written, even if he halves the homicides — a laudable achievement by any measure — his party still would be facing mid-term elections with some 45,000 murders under their president’s watch.

Still, we should not be surprised. This is the way the Peña’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) works. To be sure, the current public relations blitz mirrors that of two decades ago, when then-PRI-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was pushing hard for the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. Salinas assured any who’d listen — and plenty did — that Mexico suddenly was at the threshold of First World prosperity.

That giddy talk ended with the January 1994 Maya peasant uprising in southernmost Chiapas state, followed by the March assassination of Salinas’ handpicked successor and the December collapse of the peso and the economy. Mexican consumers and foreign investors alike were ruined by the bursting bubble. Salinas himself fled into self-imposed exile from which he only returned in recent years.

Laudable economic improvements, social advances and political progress indeed are happening even in the most gang-besieged corners of Mexico. And they’ve largely been ignored as the press and public focused heavily on the violence.

But the bright future that Peña Nieto promises and Mexicans deserve won’t be possible until the gangs are brought to heel. And that victory’s not going to be won with a public relations blitz. It will be done by actually putting into place a coherent strategy, something that appears far from a reality at this point.

The returning press coverage of the violence suggests the honeymoon may be ending for Peña Nieto. Hopefully that will force the president and his public to focus on what’s really going to work.

mexico homicides 0313 milenio

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