Last updateFri, 08 May 2015 5pm

South of North – Mexico’s spiny challenges: crazed rulers, the habit of embracing lethal corruption, uncertainty of law

“What’s happening in Jalisco is ... a readjustment by a criminal organization that has enjoyed great complacency from the state government, which has let it grow, ” said an opposition congressional candidate for the June elections.  When repeated later, there seemed to be a slight hesitation, mid-sentence, cultivating the impression that the author of this increasingly widely held observation wished to add a greater embrace of tricky, corrosive behavior.  A new scuff marring the presidency. “The real estate scandal” of course is  survivable:  What are they going to do, impeach him?

This impression was solidified by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s initial seemingly angry denial that turned into an apparently calmer acceptance of a probe of himself, his wife and his finance minister on charges of corruption.  He clearly meant the slippery purchase by this piquant trio of lavish – and lavishly priced – homes.  This was accomplished by what a great many see as a not very concealed slight-of-hand.  To make these purchases in the least punishing way was to have the “transfer of properties by long-time friends of Peña Nieto, government contractors.”  Now, to defend this clumsy maneuver, he’s appointed a long-time associate, Virgilio Andrade, a breathless supporter of Peña Nieto and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  Among many other journalists, the anchor and political pundit of the popular media outlet Univision, Leon Krauze, pointed out that, “Mexicans will have to wait and see if the investigation will be taken seriously (so far it has not) or if it will become a  simulation meant to absolve the president of wrongdoing.”

A number of people who know Mexico well have stirred official bureaucratic ire by noting that Peña Nieto’s “Mexican Moment,” praised by Time magazine, etc., not only has disappeared but has turned into murderous treatment of young people and often their protective parents.

A short time ago, Antonio Garza, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico (2000-2009), told a reporter that the Peña Nieto administration’s languid response to the disappearance, and presumed death, of the 43 Guerrero student teachers revealed that despite delusions of a Mexican Miracle, the country is still one where the past dramatically, brutally rules.  “The president’s response to this tragedy was an explicit example of this country’s weak rule of law … the event and the corruption it exposed frayed Mexicans’ trust in their public institutions.  It rocked the country, drawing tens of thousands of protestors into the streets.” 

A leader of a nation, no matter how oligarchical, can try to claim an inevitability of his actions, but can’t for long get away with claiming infallibility.  It always smacks too fragrantly of insanity – Putinismo

At times modern Mexican leaders (Luis Echeverria, Carlos Salinas de Gortari) have given hints of going over this ego edge, embracing a society’s need to connect with its past in order to deal with the present.  But luckily such presidential craziness simply ran off the rails.  A growing number of analysts of such dizzying political cavorting argue that Peña Nieto hasn’t the vision or the intellect to try to justify everything by what “it is supposed to become.”  Those thoughts are too intricate. He is not a revolutionary.  His dreams are not grand; they are minor, though recklessly vicious and avaricious, to tamper knowingly with national existence.  

Yet, as the fate of the 43 student teachers – and others – show us, even minor-league political personalities can be lethal trouble-makers.  Though this is painful, and costly, in the end a lack of dexterity has proven beneficial to citizens-in-opposition.

This why people like Garza, journalists such as Enrique Krauze, Alejandro Hope, John M. Ackerman, etc. are important.  Because rulers such as Peña Nieto and his oligarchical cronies  insist that Mexico’s corruption is a cultural not a institutional phenomenon.  Thus the dexterous examination by journalist and professor, Denise Dresser, shows how and why the seemingly reformist and modernizing narrative of Peña Nieto quickly became a “paralyzed, cornered government.”

A companion journalist, Sergio Aguayo, professor at El Colegio de Mexico, and Visiting Professor at Harvard, says Peña Nieto is “muddling through due to his inability to free himself from the burdens of a backward political culture … Mexico cannot move toward modernization with a president behaving like the Emperor of Toluca” – meaning the capital of the State of Mexico, once governed by Peña Nieto.  

Corruption is Mexico’s second concern, Aguayo said, behind the tonnage of “general” crime.  According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 72 percent of Mexicans say corruption is an intimidating problem; only about four in ten (42 percent) thought Peña Nieto was doing a good job battling corruption, compared to 54 percent who disliked his handling of that matter.  This is a six-percentage point gain in disapproval since 2013.  

Luis Rubio is director of the highly regarded Mexico City-based think tank Center of Research for Development (CIDAC).  He recently recently wrote that Mexico’s number one problem is the absence of the rule of law bound tightly to the absence of government.  Mexico’s problem, he says, “is not criminality or violence, but the absence of competent government institutions capable of maintaining order, imposing rules and earning the respect of the citizenry.   This requires “a conscious decision, first, to construct and activate robust government capacity and, two, for the government itself – the president – to accept submission to the resulting institutions.”  

Fighting corruption means dismantling Mexico’s habitual system of cronyism, influence peddling and privileges, and guaranteeing that no one, no matter how powerful he or she may be, is above the law.  Question is: Can Mexico choose a leadership up to such a democratic task?