Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto heads to Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet with Barack Obama amid civil unrest at home and uncertainty at his reception here.
Latinos in the U.S. upset about the government's support of Mexico's ongoing militarized war against the drug cartels are planning demonstrations across the country.
The Mexican president and his team started 2014 carrying out a slew of newly passed reforms, from breaking up telecommunications monopolies to opening the nation's energy sector, earning him international plaudits, including a Time magazine cover with his image above the caption "Saving Mexico."
Then came a 1-2-3 punch of scandals: Soldiers killing 22 civilians in a questionable "shootout"; the abduction and presumed murder of 43 college students, allegedly at the hands of local officials and police in league with a drug cartel; and revelations that Peña Nieto and his treasury secretary live in luxury homes built and financed by a favorite government contractor.
What was supposed to be "Mexico's moment," a new era of transparency and reform, felt a lot like the same old age of violence and corruption.
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'Saving Mexico' or saving face? President Peña Nieto hoping for boost from Washington trip
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets since the 43 college students disappeared Sept. 26. Even institutions normally cautious about criticizing the government, including the Roman Catholic Church, have spoken out, and a Mexican protester disrupted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, to draw attention to the tragedy.
"The protests are an expression of people fed up with impunity, and indignant at the complicity between some authorities and criminals," said Luis Raúl Gonzalez, president of the normally politic Human Rights Commission, speaking directly to Peña Nieto at a recent public event.
Roberto Lovato, one of the cofounders of #USTired2, the group coordinating the Tuesday demonstrations in cities across the U.S., said: “President Peña Nieto’s security forces are responsible for what is hands-down the worst human rights crisis in all of Latin America and deserves our denunciation, not our tax dollars or political support.”
Many analysts say that the Washington trip is essential for Peña Nieto to secure continued support of the U.S. in Mexico's fight against drug cartels and, just as crucially, to convince American investors to put their money on Mexico.
"He's coming to Washington to provide a boost for his presidency in 2015," Jason Marczak, the deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council told Fox News Latino. "What Mexicans will be closely watching is: Will he leave Washington with something to show for his visit?"
When Peña Nieto took office two years ago, he promised Mexico would see a new Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for 71 years, often through coercion and corruption. After losing the presidency in 2000, the party portrayed itself as repentant and reconstructed.
Disillusioned by 12 years of opposition party rule, many Mexican voters returned to the PRI on the theory it at least knows how to govern.
But the purported "new PRI" has turned out to be younger politicians operating with the old playbook. Though its leaders were lauded for passing reforms, they had nothing to fall back on when violence knocked them off their message of economic growth.
They sent police to crack down on protesters and called the unrest a plot to "destabilize" the government and undermine the reforms.
Peña Nieto told the country, just weeks after their abduction, that it was time to "move beyond" the case of the 43 students, and he took a month to meet with their families.
The administration has tried to explain away the president's $7 million mansion by saying it belonged to his wife, former soap opera actress Angelica Rivera, and it said Treasury Secretary Luis Videgaray's bought his house before he officially took office, although he was part of Peña Nieto's transition team.
Yet he is facing a Mexico much changed in the years since the PRI left office, when the country was still largely isolated, had very little investigative media and no citizen watchdogs armed with cellphone cameras and social media.
Mexicans have responded irreverently to Peña Nieto's defenses, which they have seen as arrogance and disconnect. One protest sign declared that it isn't demonstrations that are destabilizing Mexico but "your narco-government corruption."
Cabinet chief Aurelio Nuño admitted to the Spanish newspaper El Pais that the government didn't have an adequate plan to deal with insecurity because it hadn't understood the dimensions of the problem. Nevertheless, he said the answer was in the economic reforms.
Peña Nieto maintained the strategy late Sunday when he delivered a New Year's message acknowledging "a difficult year."
"The violence of organized crime hit the country once again," he said, adding that Mexico "can't continue the same." But his answer is that 2015 would be a year of lower gas, electricity and telephone bills, thanks to the reforms.
Peña Nieto's economic strategy has yet to pay off in investment or growth — one of the main reasons his approval ratings recently hit 38 percent, the lowest for any Mexican president since the peso crisis of 20 years ago. Oil prices are in the basement just as Mexico is opening its energy sector to foreign bidders, and job growth is stagnant.
Once-favorable coverage in media abroad has turned scathing.
Pressing Videgaray in an interview, CNBC correspondent Michelle Caruso-Cabrera said, "If Barbara Bush were living in a house built by Halliburton, her husband would have been impeached."
All levels of government have been sullied, with mayors and state police found to be in cahoots with organized crime, and prosecutors more interested in solving political problems than crimes.
The military, which has spearheaded anti-drug efforts, was stained by allegations that soldiers shot suspects who had already surrendered, when the army initially said it killed them in a fierce shootout in June. Federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam didn't investigate until three months later, after news media found witnesses who contradicted the official version.
Mexico's major parties are all viewed negatively, leaving few options for those disappointed with Peña Nieto. The city officials directly implicated in the attack on the students and state officials who carried out the initial, floundering investigation were backed by the leftist Democratic Revolution Party that has long crusaded against PRI corruption.
In his Sunday address, Peña Nieto promised to be a better listener, and to "combat corruption and impunity and strengthen transparency."
But once again, he offered no specifics.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.
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