Philip L. Russell :
2016: Another bad year for Mexico’s Peña Nieto

His presidency has been marked by corruption, social inequality, and broken promises.

Caricature of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto
by DonkeyHotey/ Flickr.

By Philip L. Russell | The Rag Blog | January 18, 2017


Philip Russell will join Thorne Dreyer on the syndicated Rag Radio program, Friday, January 20, 2017, to discuss this article and the Peña Nieto presidency. The show first airs on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and is streamed live here.


Philip Russell writes about Mexico for The Rag Blog. This is the third in his series about the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto.


December 1, 2015, marked the half-way point of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s six-year term. At that time his approval rating stood at 39 percent — the lowest such rating for any Mexican president this century. As reported in the paper Reforma, during the following year his approval rating sunk to 24 percent as a result of his failure to address chronic problems as well as new aggravations.

According to the government’s own statistical agency, known by its acronym as INEGI, the Mexican public considers insecurity and criminality to be their country’s gravest problem. Peña Nieto, rather than making a dent in the social and economic problems which lead young people to join drug gangs, has continued his predecessor’s failed policy of combating trafficking by taking out kingpins.

While the murder rate did decline during the first half of Peña Nieto’s term, increased pressure on drug trafficking led cartels to diversify into kidnapping and extortion. Then even the decline in the murder rate reversed. In 2016 the 6,120 murders presumed to be related to organized crime represented a 2 percent increase over 2015. The December 2016 Reforma poll found 71 percent of Mexicans disapproved of Peña Nieto’s handling of public security.

He allowed a particularly egregious set of governors to plunder their states’ treasuries.

INEGI found Mexicans considered the second most serious problem to be their nation’s endemic corruption. Nations such as Guatemala, Brazil, and Argentina provide recent examples of how even those at the top of the political system can be held accountable. Instead of holding leaders accountable, the Peña Nieto administration allowed a particularly egregious set of governors to plunder their states’ treasuries. In the Reforma poll 80 percent disapproved of Peña Nieto’s attempts to combat corruption and 57 percent declared corruption had worsened in 2016.

On the campaign trail Peña Nieto promised economic growth of 5 percent, thus paving the way for lifting millions out of poverty. Despite Peña Nieto’s pushing through several highly publicized “reform” laws, Mexican economic growth never approached 5 percent. In 2016 Mexico’s economy grew at only 2.1 percent—roughly the same rate as population increase. This rate of growth was ahead of that of Latin America as a whole which saw economic decline of 1 percent. That decline carried little weight with Mexicans, 64% of whom disapproved of Peña Nieto’s job-creation efforts.

In the late twentieth century Mexican policymakers made economic decisions which differentiated their nation from other Latin American nations, especially Brazil. Mexico focused on manufactured exports to the United States, while other Latin American nations shipped commodities to China.

Certain sectors of the Mexican economy prospered as a result of these decisions. Mexico is now the seventh largest auto producer in the world and the largest in Latin America. While the auto sector has grown at 5 percent annually since 2007, the 764,000 jobs provided in assembly and producing auto parts come nowhere close to providing sufficient jobs for an expanding population.

With Trump’s election, the almost 30 percent of gross domestic based on commerce with the United States is at risk.

The 15 wealthiest Mexicans have fortunes totaling $148 billion.

With a GDP per capita of over $10,000, Mexico as a whole is far more prosperous than many Latin America nations. However distribution of existing wealth is not only highly unequal, but worsening. The 15 wealthiest Mexicans have fortunes totaling $148 billion, up 18.4 percent in one year. Such appropriation of wealth increasingly impoverishes other Mexicans. By the government’s own figures, between 2008 and 2014, the percentage of Mexicans living in poverty increased. The result — 55.3 million poor Mexicans. According to the Reforma poll, 64 percent of Mexicans disapprove of Peña Nieto’s efforts to combat poverty.

All politicians seemingly face issues which just won’t go away. For Hillary Clinton it was her emails. For Peña Nieto it is the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the normal school at Ayotzinapa. The government declared it had arrived at the “historic truth” on the matter. This “truth” declared that the students had commandeered several buses to travel to the city of Iguala to disrupt a political rally.

According to the official version, local police stopped the buses and turned the students over to a drug gang, which believing the students to be from a rival gang, murdered them and incinerated their remains in a garbage dump.

Demonstrations, led by parents of the 43 missing students, kept the issue alive.

As initially presented, this account met with widespread skepticism. International investigation teams cast further doubt. For example, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team declared that, given physical evidence ranging from satellite imagery to unscorched vegetation, the bodies were not incinerated in the dump. Demonstrations, led by parents of the 43 missing students, kept the issue alive.

In 2016 Anabel Hernández published La Verdadera Noche de Iguala (The True Night of Iguala), which presented the first credible account of the students’ disappearance. After years of painstaking investigation, she concluded that the missing students had unwittingly commandeered a bus loaded with $2 million of heroin destined for Chicago. The local drug capo, who owned the heroin, ordered the 27th Infantry Battalion, stationed in Iguala, to recapture the bus. The battalion was on his payroll.

Once the soldiers seized the bus, they realized the students had discovered the hidden heroin and that if allowed to live would reveal the army’s role in protecting heroin traffickers. Hernández’s account explains the government’s unwillingness to allow anyone to interview members of the military concerning the students’ disappearance.

As political scientist Lorenzo Meyer commented:

For more than two years a supposedly modern state like the Mexican one has been systematically incapable of supplying a credible response to the disappearance of the young students and to act on it. This has come at an enormous cost for the Peña Nieto administration. It raises the question, “Is this incapacity the result of mere incompetence or does it result from secret ties with criminal organizations or both?”

The Trump invitation united Mexico as few acts in living memory.

In August Peña Nieto managed to further lower his already record-low ratings by inviting then-candidate Donald Trump for a brief visit to Los Pinos, the presidential residence. Rather than bolstering Peña Nieto’s stature, making it appear that the president was a world-class statesman, the invitation was seen as bolstering Trump’s flagging campaign and thus providing a key ingredient to his eventual election victory. What the invitation did do is unite Mexico as few acts in living memory. Pundits and politicians from right to left were in agreement that the invitation was a really dumb idea.

Elections held in several states in June reflected Peña Nieto’s unpopularity and the virulent corruption of some governors of Peña Nieto’s party — the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). The PRI lost governorships in seven states, including five where it had never lost. The center-right National Action Party (PAN) received 4.6 million votes, edging out the PRI, which received 4.5 million. Rather than this sending a message of support for the PAN, this vote total was, as political scientist Denise Dresser commented, the result of the PAN’s being “perceived as the least rotten fruit in the market.”

In a 2016 poll, 69 percent of Mexicans declared they had little or no confidence in elections. This lack of confidence was reflected in 1.2 million fewer Mexicans, despite population increase, voting in the 2016 elections than in the corresponding elections in 2010. Those who did cast a vote increasingly avoided the three parties which have dominated Mexican politics for the last quarter century — the PRI, the PAN, and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). In 2016, these three parties received 3.7 million fewer votes than they received in 2010.

Peña Nieto’s image continues to drag
the PRI down.

The June elections were the last major round of elections before the 2018 presidential election. None of the three major parties come into this election in a strong position. Peña Nieto’s image continues to drag the PRI down. The PAN is stuck with the memories of the last two presidential administrations in which it held the presidency, but failed to adequately address the problems noted above.

The problems of the PAN and the PRI should favor the center-left PRD. However the PRD has its own baggage. It suffers from well-publicized internal factions which struggle to control the generous funding provided to political parties by the government.

At the beginning of the Peña Nieto administration the PRD joined the PRI and the PAN in the Pact for Mexico — a legislative alliance to pass sweeping reforms. It has also formed coalitions with the PAN to face PRI gubernatorial candidates. Both of these moves put into question exactly what the party stands for. Further tarnishing its image was the PRD’s holding both the governorship of Guerrero, where Iguala is located, and the mayoralty of Iguala at the time the 43 students disappeared. This tainted the party with suspicions of links to organized crime.

Polling concerning the 2018 presidential elections has begun in earnest. Likely candidates include former first lady Margarita Zavala. During the U.S. presidential campaign she was often compared to Clinton, in that she would be, if elected, the first female president of Mexico. Unlike Clinton, she has never held elective or administrative office. Also unlike Clinton, she failed to make a strong impression as first lady. She was more of a Laura Bush than a Hillary Clinton.

The PRI has no clear front runner. Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong’s name is usually included in polls simply because he might well be the PRI candidate. Whoever the PRI candidate is will have a hard time distancing himself from Peña Nieto. (The party lacks a viable woman candidate.)

The PRD similarly lacks a strong candidate. The name of Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera is usually included in polls simply because the party has no better prospects.

The one sure candidate in 2018 is leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

The one sure candidate in 2018 is Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). The two-time presidential candidate on the PRD ticket left the party and founded his own party, the Movement for National Renovation (MORENA). This party received a respectable 14.2 percent of the vote in the June elections. AMLO, who opposes Peña Nieto’s reforms, promises to hold a referendum on whether to repeal them.

Although considered a leftist and often compared to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez by his detractors, his highly ambitious economic plans are more influenced by mid-twentieth century Mexican nationalism than by Fidel Castro. (For AMLO’s program, Google “programa electoral de 50 puntos morena.”) An August poll found that he had the highest approval rating of any major political figure (30%) and the highest disapproval rating (33%).

A December poll found that 29 percent of those polled favored AMLO, 26 percent Zavala, 15 percent Osorio Chong, and 9 percent Mancera.

Election watchers should keep in mind that the 2018 election will only have one round, with the highest vote-getter being declared winner. Thus political alliances between parties are crucial. The 2018 winner may well receive a winning plurality by having formed an alliance with otherwise insignificant parties. Also the early front runner in two of the last three presidential elections has faded, leaving a rival to be declared winner. Finally, given lax enforcement of campaign finance laws and the precedent set by the last two presidential elections, vast amounts of money — some legal and some otherwise — will swirl around the election.

Peña Nieto managed to further sully his already battered reputation.

Rather than closing out the year quietly, during the last week of the year, Peña Nieto managed to further sully his already battered reputation. His administration announced a fuel price increase known as the gasolinazo, which raised gasoline and diesel prices between 14 and 24 percent. Rather than accepting Peña Nieto’s explanation that the price increase reflected an increase in the price of imported fuel and the decreased value of the peso relative to the dollar (the currency unit used to price fuel purchases), Mexico erupted in protest.

In the most widespread protests of the century, protesters across Mexico blocked roads, railroads, and Pemex distribution terminals. In hundreds of cases protests that began as peaceful road blockages morphed into the sacking of nearby stores. The protests spilled over into 2017, and as of January 9, 1,852 had been arrested as a result of the protests and sackings in 29 of Mexico’s 32 states.

As numerous commentators observed, the strong reaction, rather than reflecting displeasure with the gasolinazo per se, was the release of pent up anger over corruption, insecurity, social inequality, and broken promises, including Peña Nieto’s promise that his energy reform would lower fuel prices. Peña Nieto couldn’t have given AMLO a nicer Christmas present.


[Austin-based writer Philip L. Russell has written six books on Latin America, including The Essential History of Mexico (Routledge, 2016), and is the editor of the Mexico Energy News.]


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