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Is Peña Nieto Facing a Mexican Spring?

Two years ago, Enrique Peña Nieto took office as Mexico’s president, under the banner of a renovated Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and with a promise of a brighter economic, social and political future.

Only two months after he took office, Thomas L. Friedman remarked on that promise in an article titled “How Mexico Got Back in the Game.” And who can forget Time magazine’s February 2014 cover, featuring Peña Nieto with the headline “Saving Mexico”? In that feature, author Michael Crowley said that on the security issues, “alarms are being replaced with applause” and that the social, political and economic reforms package steamrolled through a PRI-dominant Congress were preview of great things to come.

The media prematurely started calling this era “Mexico’s moment.” Granted, we are living quite an interesting moment in Mexico’s history, but not for the reasons the 2012 optimists foresaw.

A recent series of events and decisions stemming from the political elite at local, state and federal levels has detonated into what could evolve into a Mexican version of the Arab Spring. In Friedman’s piece, he quoted the president of Monterrey’s Center for Citizen Integration saying that “Once a citizen feels he is not powerless, he can aspire for more change. [...] First, the Web democratized commerce, and then it democratized media, and now it is democratizing democracy.”

This is exactly what’s happening. A newly empowered Mexican civil society is reacting and saying enough is enough.

Some of the things I will discuss in this piece are not making their way to mainstream media, or they are being distorted and minimized, but they are gaining momentum in the open forum of Mexican social media—clearly demonstrating the growing divide between institutions and a fed-up and empowered rebellious citizenry. 

The apparent state-sponsored mass murder of 43 rural students from Ayotzinapa was not the result of Peña Nieto’s mandate or decisions. The horrible events occurred in the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)-run state of Guerrero, and the alleged intellectual authors of the massacre where the now-deposed and incarcerated PRD mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife.

However, the president’s reaction to the crisis is proving to be more than a challenge for his office. Protesters are holding him accountable and expecting answers from him and only him.

When the massacre reached mass media, political groups in the elite saw it as an opportunity to attack their opponents. Two-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador called for Peña Nieto’s resignation, saying the president was not equipped to deal with the Ayotzinapa case. The PRI apparatus returned the blow, flooding the Web with a picture of Abarca and López Obrador hugging during a political rally and arguing that the two politicians were not only members of the same political party, but close friends and political allies.

While this game of political finger-pointing was going on, the families of the 43 students—and, quite frankly, most Mexicans—were more interested in what the federal government was doing to advance the investigation and to deliver credible results.

When days turned into months and the public still had no answers, two incidents collided and became a perfect storm for the president.

On November 7, 33 days after the Ayotzinapa students disappeared, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam gave a press conference in which he declared that the students’ bodies had been thrown in a mass grave and cremated, citing confessions from local gang members as evidence. Families of the students, who had expected empathy and hope, were instead subjected to a crude account of how their loved ones had been abducted, transported, tortured, maimed and murdered.

Murillo continued to share testimonies of apprehended criminals, describing the way the bodies were doused with gasoline and set ablaze. At the conclusion of the press conference, Murillo dodged questions challenging the credibility of his statements, only to abruptly end the session by getting up from his chair and murmuring “I’ve had enough” (Ya me cansé).

Though Murillo later said that his words were an expression of his frustration with the violence, #Yamecansé immediately became a trending topic on Twitter. Enraged Mexicans shouted they, too, had had enough of the political elite, of organized crime in bed with the government, and of being lied to and patronized.

The second PR disaster came two days later, when journalist Carmen Aristegui uncovered a case of alleged corruption and nepotism involving Peña Nieto’s wife, Angélica Rivera. Aristegui revealed that the construction company Grupo Higa, which had won a  multimillion dollar bid to construct a high-speed rail project in the PRI-governed state of Nuevo León, had also built Rivera’s now famous $7 million “Casa Blanca” mansion.

As if the Casa Blanca accusation wasn’t bad enough, Peña Nieto decided not to directly respond to it. Instead, the strategy from the president’s office was to have the First Lady provide an explanation, in a failed attempt to put distance between the accusation and the president.  The Rivera’s nonsensical YouTube video explanation of how she came to possess enough money to buy the house through acting in telenovelas, created an outcry on social media, showing that nobody bought the First Lady’s explanation. Instead, the video became yet another symbol of the effrontery with which the political class approaches their constituency, stirring up frustration and indignation.

 The #Yamecansé and #CasaBlanca hashtags sparked massive social mobilizations and marches in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City and in major cities across the country and abroad. Some have compared these mass protests with the #YoSoy132 movement of 2012.

The similarity between the two movements is the fact that Peña Nieto is the main target of criticis—but it would be more accurate to compare the current movement with the Arab Spring. #YoSoy132 was fueled by electoral politics, with the goal of preventing Peña Nieto from winning office. After Peña Nieto was elected, the movement did not die completely, but it became more symbolic than effective.

Today, enraged and politically alienated youth are amassing in a more organic way, and their reasons for protesting will not dissipate after electoral polls close. Local, state and federal incompetence and corruption have created more reasons than ever for people to take to the streets and demand a change. 

There is no sign of this trend reversing. In fact, all strategies used by the government to tackle the protests only seem to aggravate them.  With accusations of police beating up and arresting peaceful protesters, Peña Nieto’s presentation of a security reform that would unify local police forces was met with skepticism. The spokesperson for the relatives of the Ayotzinapa victims called the measure “like his words—false,” and a move by Mexico’s lower house of Congress to revise rules on social mobilization (Senate approval pending) was received as a threat to freedom of speech and freedom of movement.  

Why aren’t these strategies working? In part, because they were the wrong solutions to begin with. In his recent op-ed in El Economista, the founder and president of the Mexican think tank Instituto de Pensamiento Estratégico Ágora A.C. (IPEA ), Armando Regil Velasco, identified the root cause of the prolonged problem:

“When your moral authority is so fragile, it doesn’t matter what you say. Skepticism will impose itself and little to nothing will be believable. [The Federal government] lacks honesty, courage and determination.”

The Mexican political elite, with Peña Nieto heading the list, has lost whatever  trust the citizenry once had in them. The phrase “more crooked than a politician” has risen to new heights in today’s Mexico, and those brave enough to mobilize are finding more and more reasons to do so as more cases of corruption and inadequacy develop.

After two years of Peña Nieto’s government and with the current social chaos the country is facing, I wonder where those 2012 notions of “Saving Mexico,” “Mexico’s moment” and “getting back in the game” have ended up. The best place to look for them is probably in the gutter.

*Arjan Shahani is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and is an MBA graduate from Thunderbird University and Tecnológico de Monterrey and a member of the International Advisory Board of Global Majority—an international non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of non-violent conflict resolution.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Ayotzinapa, Mexican protests, Enrique Peña Nieto

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