MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto planned to enact new rules for the energy sector on Monday – another step toward opening an industry he says will spur investment and economic growth.
His time at the podium, however, tilted toward the case of 43 missing teaching school students, who authorities allege were abducted in late September in the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero by crooked cops acting in cahoots with organized crime.
The president called for another multi-party alliance – not unlike the previous “Pacto por México,” which allowed him to get approval for 11 structural reforms in just 20 months – to curb crime and pacify a population outraged over so many students going missing and remaining unaccounted for six weeks.
“I welcome the positions that political parties and civil society representatives have expressed for the acts that occurred (in Iguala) so that we join forces in favor of the rule of law, combating corruption and stopping impunity,” Peña Nieto said.
In the past, the president has preferred to speak about the economy and structural reforms to sectors such as education, energy and telecommunications rather than security.
That was part of a conscious effort to court international investors and improve the image of a country still struggling with a crackdown on organized crime and cartels that had been pushed by Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, that has cost an estimated 100,000 lives over the last eight years.
But the late-September abductions—which the nation’s attorney general alleges were ordered by the mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife in order to prevent the protesting students from interrupting a political event—rudely reminded Mexicans that large regions of the country remain rife with drug cartel activity and state-sponsored violence.
The crisis and his desire to avoid security subjects appear to have caught Peña Nieto “empty-handed,” says Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “His plan never included having a Plan B for crime abatement, law enforcement, etc., and all the (necessary) institutional reforms.”
The teacher trainees – who attend a school for kids coming from rural regions of rugged and impoverished Guerrero state in southern Mexico – went missing Sept. 26 in Iguala, 120 miles south of Mexico City, where they went to fundraise for a future trip. They were shot at by police, who killed six students and bystanders and detained 43 in the group, according to survivors.
The detained students were subsequently turned over to the Guerreros Unidos gang, which had been paying Mayor Abarca and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda, roughly $200,000 a month, according to attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam.
Now, allegations of hits being ordered by Abarca have begun to appear, including the murder of a farmers’ defense movement, Arturo Hernández Cardona.
"We always knew someone was behind him," Hernández's widow and Iguala city councilor, Sofia Mendoza, told FNL, adding that her common-law husband had been close to the students from the teacher training school.
The couple was arrested in the scruffy Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City early Tuesday morning.
Families of the missing finally met Peña Nieto on Oct. 29, more than a month after the incident, but then they refused to leave his residence until five hours later, after the president had signed an agreement creating a commission to keep them better informed of the investigation.
“It disappointed us,” one father, Emiliano Navarete, told MVS Radio of the meeting. “I expected something more. … A little hope,” he added.
Peña Nieto has reiterated that the search is the top priority of his administration at the moment. Murillo previously said he had “half” the attorney general’s office working on the case.
The sight of farm families criticizing the president and refusing to leave his residence clashed with Peña Nieto’s attempts at restoring an aura of stature to the presidency – an office that has lost some of its luster over the past 20 years as power began shifting to state and local governments.
It also underscored the president’s media management problems, which he had avoided by staying silent on security – until now.
“It worked pretty well for a couple years,” says Estévez. “But the period of (enacting) reforms ended and the (midterm) election cycle is on. Then this crops up.”
Perceptions of increased crime have cropped up since Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, despite the silence and claims to the contrary in his most recent state of the nation address.
The annual perception of insecurity survey published by the governmental statistics service, INEGI, found that 93.8 percent of all crime went unreported or uninvestigated in Mexico last year. Some 73.3 percent of respondents described the state they live in as insecure, an increase from 2013.
Last week, seven athletes were kidnapped, including one Olympian, while training in a rural part of southern Mexico City, adding to the general unease. Officials later said the athletes were released the next day after a ransom was paid.
“Fortunately, a rescue was achieved,” Peña Nieto later said. “We’re going to go after the criminals.”
Peña Nieto can boast some big security accomplishments—such as capturing Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and a handful of other cartel kingpins.
But the response to the kidnapping was another example of a “reactionary attitude” to security problems, says Mario Patrón, director of the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico City.
An anti-kidnapping czar was appointed earlier in the year after non-governmental groups kept complaining that kidnappings were on the rise. Peña Nieto also appointed a commissioner for security and governance in Michaocán, where vigilantes rose up to fight off cartel criminals, and invested heavily in infrastructure and anti-poverty programs there.
He also unveiled plans for fixing Tamaulipas state on the Texas border, where three Mexican-American siblings were recently abducted and killed—a crime for which a tactical police unit known as the Hercules Group is being investigated.
The announcements have been accompanied with great fanfare. But many observers say that the accomplishments have a cosmetic edge to them.
“This government decided to change the façade,” wrote columnist Carlos Puig in the newspaper Milenio, “but essentially keep the same strategy. The military is at the front, containing territory and fragmenting cartels.”
The president’s office has attempted to promote success stories by inviting foreign reporters to observe a new police force in Monterrey and crime prevention programs in the northern city of Torreón, ranging from providing people with paint for their homes to planting community gardens to organizing youth soccer schools.
"It was way too dangerous before so no one wanted to go outside," says José de Jesús Valdez, 14, who participates in the youth soccer school in the city of Gómez Palacio near Torreón.
When asked what they would be doing without the program, which runs with support from the Mexican Football Federation, several teenagers responded, "Doing drugs."
Torreón was the most violent city in Mexico at the beginning of Peña Nieto’s term in December 2012. The murder rate fell more than 50 percent in 2013 and shootouts ceased as federal and local forces began collaborating more, according to an analysis by journalist Javier Garza, the former editor of El Siglo de Torreón, which appeared in the Spanish newspaper El País.
But he also asked the $64 million dollar question: "How can the same government produce positive results in one part of the country but disastrous ones in others?"