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On a September trip north of the border, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto wowed Wall Street with talk of recently approved structural reforms. He also assumed the presidency of an international initiative known as the Open Government Partnership. The Appeal to Conscience Foundation even awarded him, “World Statesman of the Year,” honors.
Four months later, Peña Nieto heads north again humbled for a Tuesday meeting with President Obama.
Domestic issues dog him: crime, accusations of corruption and the impression his administration has handled ineptly the case of 43 missing students, who were kidnapped by municipal cops in Iguala in the state of Guerrero acting in cahoots with criminals and are most likely dead.
How much the United States – a country his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has historically been wary of – can assist in restoring his image and calming the country remains an open question.
Analysts say the trip is as much about issues at home, where his approval rating touched levels not seen in 20 years, as it is abroad – especially as international investors ask uncomfortable questions of a country previously considered the emerging market of the moment and a leader lauded by Time magazine as “Saving Mexico.”
“Peña Nieto is going to the United States to recover his image in Mexico,” says Ilán Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, told Fox News Latino.
Crises are nothing new for Mexico, where a crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives over the last 8 years and another 30,000 have disappeared.
But having a president stuck in scandal so soon after taking office is unprecedented, according to experts.
“Never before has a Mexican president in the second year of his administration had such a dramatic crisis,” Semo says. “Normally, the crises arrive at the end of an administration.”
Peña Nieto was supposed to be different. He put a fresh face on an old party and promised change and a break from the corruption so common with his PRI predecessors. He promoted an agenda of ambitious reform in areas such as energy, taxation and telecommunications – all efforts that the PRI obstructed while in opposition – upon taking office two years ago.
He called it, “Mexico’s moment.”
Peña Nieto’s agenda won accolades abroad but caused questions at home, where a skeptical population recalled past reforms that resulted in few improvements in their pocketbooks while a privileged few walked away with the biggest benefits.
Getting reforms on track is a priority – for both Peña Nieto and the Obama administration, which has spoken positively of the Mexican president’s plans.
“The Obama administration is heavily invested in Mexico’s reforms,” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the America’s Society/Council of the Americas, told FNL.
“It’s easier to develop political support domestically for engaging with other countries when they are seen as opportunities, not problems.”
Already, a reform to implement teacher testing and end old education vices such as selling jobs is under attack from teachers’ unions and may end up falling short of expectation.
An effort to open up the state-run oil industry is still in its nascent stages, although the government has opened up bids in a process known as “Round One.”
“My general feeling is that the Mexican government is not ready for Round One, even if they had a good contract,” George Baker, publisher of energia.com and a veteran observer of the Mexico oil industry, told FNL.
“They don’t have their regulatory institutions in place.”
Oil prices slumping to less than $50 a barrel threaten to undermine the reform and the government’s finances, Baker says, along with a contract being offered to foreign petroleum producers that he calls, “Full of holes.”
Peña Nieto started the New Year by talking up these reforms while inaugurating a natural gas pipeline in Oaxaca state. But he faces skepticism and opposition, along with an irate business class pushing back against tax increases, which the president says will go toward infrastructure spending – an issue causing unease as questions over how the contracts are being awarded are surfacing.
Already, Peña Nieto appears to be appealing to the nearly 60 percent of non-taxpaying Mexicans in the informal economy. His New Year’s address focused on populist policies such as no new increases in government-set gasoline prices, lower electricity bills and the distribution of 10 million digital TV sets – free for low-income families – which is part of a switch from analog to digital signals.
“This good news for the family economy is the start, I’m certain, of a better year for Mexico,” he said on Jan. 4.
Peña Nieto made no mention of Ayotzinapa, the school in Guerrero that the missing students attended and now the shorthand for the tragedy.
His handling of the disappearance and its investigation has caused questions as he waited 11 days to publicly condemn the attack on the students and still hasn’t visited either the school or scene of the crime.
“He’s not good in crisis,” said Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, pointing to a president apparently paralyzed by having his agenda flipped for him from approving reforms and cutting ribbons on public- works projects to security – a topic Peña Nieto previous avoided mentioning.
“It’s just like a soap opera on Televisa: they need normal times to make it go,” he says of the conditions necessary for promoting Peña Nieto’s plans.
Others say the president’s past is part of the problem. The state of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides and where Peña Nieto previously served as governor, is known for a political culture of closeness between politicians and the business class – both of whom have benefited from the arrangement , Estévez maintained.
“They’re governing the country the way they governed the state,” says Manuel Molano, deputy director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a Mexico City think tank.
A $7 million mansion purchased by First Lady Angelica Rivera with credit from a government contractor only reinforced those perceptions. The president’s office says the deal is above board and that she is not a public official.
“The society is offended because these people are thinking only about business and not advancing public policies in security or economic recovery,” Molano told FNL.
Security was not an issue emphasized by the Peña Nieto administration until well after the Ayotzinapa tragedy first came to light.
The president belatedly unveiled a 10-point plan with measures such as putting state police forces under a single command. Critics accused Peña Nieto of recycling old ideas from his predecessor, ex-President Felipe Calderón – whose name is increasingly appearing on social media sites with half-serious comments such as, “We miss you!” and, “The best president we’ve had.”
Agendas at meetings with the U.S. president used to focus on security during the Calderón years. The U.S. government unveiled an initiative called the Mérida Initiative which funneled money into the country for security purposes, though “little information is available on how these resources are being spent and how effective they’ve been,” security consultant Jorge Kawas told FNL.
“Obama may also want to publicly condemn recent events that show the deep involvement of public officials, including the [Mexican] army,” says Kawas, referring both to Ayotzinapa and to an incident in which soldiers massacred 22 people who had been disarmed in the town of Tlatlaya.
Obama, he adds, can “use that to pivot towards a new priority – tackling corruption and impunity and real institutional reform.”
Parents of the missing students refuse to accept evidence presented by the attorney general’s office that the students’ remains were incinerated in a garbage dump and promise to continue the protests that have upset the country since late September until their children return home.
One mother expressed hope the U.S. government might lend a hand in a search she considers insufficient.
“There’s lots of technology now, why can’t they find them?” Oli Parral, whose two sons, Jorge Luis, and Dorian, are among the missing, said in an interview with Fox News Latino at her home in the farming village of Xalpatlahuac, north of Acapulco.
“This was the government,” she says. “The government knows where they are.”