Monday, December 2, 2013

Enrique Peña Nieto at one year: a marathon, not a sprint

MGR News Analysis -
The trail leads through Michoacán, and a cabinet member publicly frets over administration progress

Guadalajara -
In real life, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto is no slouch on the track.

Well, on the 10K anyway. How he'll do on the 42.195 kilometer course, to which he compared his presidency Sunday, is yet to be seen. Peña Nieto just completed 12 months of his 72 month term.

"I'm running a full marathon, and I've only done 7K," he told reporters over the weekend while asking for patience.

"Restoring peace and order everywhere" was one of many bold promises the youthful president made a year ago yesterday when he was sworn in as the first Institutional Revolutionary Party president in more than a decade. And although he promised during last year's political campaign to slash narco executions in the first 100 days of the new PRI administration, he backed off that guarantee in March when he told the press (while attending Pope Benedict's investiture in Rome) that measurable results would take a year. Mexicans divided on drug war effort of new government. Today that year is up, and the numbers are unlikely to impress many. Are 1,555 drug war deaths a month encouraging?

A Mexican public opinion poll conducted in the third week of November gave the president his lowest grades yet. Only 44% approved of his tenure, while 48% did not. It was the first time Peña Nieto has received an approval rating of less than half of survey respondents, and it represented a drop of eight points since July (52%).

The perennial first topic on everyone's mind in this country is domestic security, and on that issue the president's marks were particularly dismal. One out of five (21%) think the new government has made progress against organized crime, while 58% do not.

The poor rating is particularly significant when measured against Peña Nieto's unanticipated drug war strategy, which has been to increase the use of troops and paramiltary units against the country's 60-80 drug cartels. When he took over 12 months ago, about 50,000 soldiers were regularly assigned to domestic crime fighting operations. Now the number is 76,500, reports the always reliable newspaper La Jornada, assisted by more than 20,000 Federal Police. Next year, the first 5,000 strong contingent of Mexico's new National Gendarmerie will make its debut.

Those numbers may surprise much of the American press, which dramatically misevaluated what the new PRI government would do once the reins of power had changed in Mexico City. They failed to see that Peña Nieto had no option given the nation's continuing wobbly security. Meanwhile, former PAN (National Action Party) president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa remains widely vilified at home and abroad for implementing the militarization strategy to which EPN has demonstrated unflinching commitment.

Last week the president's attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, said some amazing things, which illustrate the administration's thorough mastery of spin doctoring. "Overall in the past year, security in Mexico has improved," he told the press, citing as Exhibit 1 - incredibly - the Pacific coast state of Michoacán. "Little by little, region by region, order is being reestablished," contended Murillo Karam.

Michoacán, of course, is that state where organized crime violence rages on seven years after the drug war began (December 2006), where federals are fired upon in broad daylight by roving execution squads, where admirals are murdered, where electrical grids and infrastructure systems are attacked by cartel operatives and where it is frequently impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad ones. Another 3,000 federal troops poured into Michoacán just last week, trying to restore civil order after a convoy of 150 Federal Police was ambushed by unidentified assailants. Two were killed, and 10 injured.

In statements last summer which cannot be reconciled with those of his chief law enforcement officer, Peña Nieto himself admitted, "Regrettably, parts of the state have passed into the hands of organized crime." All that was before 67 decomposed corpses were dug up from a narco cemetery in La Barca, Jalisco, a kilometer from the Michoacán border and just down the road from where a large community of Americans and Canadians calls home along the shores of Lake Chapala. (No wonder it's a buyers' and renters' market in Ajijic, an expat town where you'll hear more English than Spanish on streets.)

Tax collectors and budge office directors don't usually weigh in on domestic security matters, but last week Hacienda secretary Luis Videgaray, a key Peña Nieto appointee, dared to do so. The Hacienda is Mexico's answer to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

After Mexico's secretary of government Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong - the most powerful member of Peña Nieto's cabinet, and a man whose words must be regarded as coming from the mouth of the president himself - enthusiastically endorsed attorney general Murillo Karam's comments about allegedly improving security in Michoacán, Videgaray addressed the issues rather more bluntly.

"Michoacán has great potential and great opportunities, but today it confronts a singular challenge, a huge challenge which not only the state but the entire nation must face," he told an audience. "Today in Michoacán, the Mexican State itself is challenged, as is the rule of law. We have to strengthen not only Michoacán, but our public institutions. We have to give our citizens (the security) they demand."

The unstated but perhaps well understood point made by secretary Videgaray was that Mexico's disastrously performing economy in 2013 is at least partially attributable to its endless domestic security woes. And that is yet one more problem on president Enrique Peña Nieto's plate, as he takes a deep breath and looks ahead to the next 7K stretch of his very long and lonely marathon.

A footnote - There has been speculation that Luis Videgaray may want to run for president in 2018. Perhaps he stuck his neck out just a bit, to demonstrate early on that he's his own man, not EPN's.

Jan. 13, 2014 - Michoacán security accord more of the same old song
Dec. 19 - Mexican Attorney General hands over domestic security reports to Associated Press
Dec. 16 - On major reforms, Peña Nieto hit 7 out of 10 during his first year in office
Dec. 15 - Mexico the world leader in 2013 kidnappings for ransom
Dec. 11 - Mexico's PEMEX: senators open the door to foreign expertise and private capital
Dec. 10 - Foreign Policy names Peña Nieto a top Global Thinker
Mar. 30 - Washington Post has high praise for Enrique Peña Nieto
Mar. 11 - Enrique Peña Nieto's three smart decisions
Dec. 19, 2012 - The first mass killing on EPN's watch
Dec. 19, 2012 - Enrique's challenging homework
July 23, 2012 - Enrique Peña Nieto's biggest challenges will be economy and environment, not drug cartels

© MGRR 2013. All rights reserved. This article may be cited or briefly quoted with proper attribution or a hyperlink, but not reproduced without permission.

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