Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto ends his six-year term amid a rising body count, allegations of cover-ups, and having failed his nation on a variety of key issues, particularly security.
Assessing the legacy of any presidency is complicated, as each carries triumphs and failures. But Peña Nieto’s tenure is unusual for starting with such promise and then foundering in virtually every realm.
What went wrong for Peña Nieto?
Spike in Violence
Peña Nieto assumed Mexico’s presidency after a dramatic increase in bloodshed that engulfed the administration of his predecessor Felipe Calderón. At the time of his inauguration, though, the worst of the Calderón era appeared to have passed; Juarez had stabilized and was no longer the world’s most violent city, while nationwide murders actually declined slightly in 2012.
Initially, Peña Nieto saw the positive trend he inherited continue. In 2013, for example, the nationwide total of murders declined more than 10 percent, to just over 23,000, before falling still further in 2014. But by the latter half of Peña Nieto’s presidency, the trend had reversed.
In 2017, Mexico tallied 31,174 murders, more than any year in its modern history. Peña Nieto's last year in office has seen a similar body count, meaning that incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador inherits a country in need of triage.
Peña Nieto’s reputation abroad initially enjoyed a boost from the improved murder rate and his seeming departure from Calderón’s relentless bellicosity. Whereas Calderón announced new troop deployments and made appearances in army fatigues, Peña Nieto presented himself as a pragmatic technocrat. Foreign enthusiasm for Peña Nieto culminated in a flattering 2014 profile in Time magazine, in which his photo graced the cover beneath the headline “Saving Mexico.”
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But the accolades were short-lived. Corruption and incompetence undermined Peña Nieto’s presidency. The most damning examples were the bungled investigation into the disappearance of 43 college students and the revelation that Peña Nieto’s wife received a luxury property from prominent government contractors. At the same time, increased insecurity and violence stained his and the country’s reputations.
Rather than the savior of Time’s imagination, Peña Nieto became a figure of ridicule at home and abroad.
Military on the Streets
Peña Nieto began his presidency amid pledges to back away from Calderón’s heavy reliance on the military to police Mexico’s streets. His promise of a robust new gendarmerie was aimed at removing soldiers and marines from civilian areas.
But once created, the new police force was too small and incapable of replacing the military, except in isolated areas. The military remained key to Mexico’s security strategy throughout Peña Nieto’s tenure, leaving behind a mix of operational successes and allegations of human rights abuses.
Despite his promises to curtail the use of the military, Peña Nieto eventually pursued a dramatic expansion of its powers. His 2017 security law strengthened the legal basis for domestic operations, paving the way for permanent deployment of soldiers and marines on Mexican streets. The law — furiously opposed by NGOs and political opponents — was declared unconstitutional by Mexico’s Supreme Court in November 2018. As Peña Nieto leaves office, Mexico’s military is again in a state of confusion.
During Peña Nieto’s tenure, the daunting long-term challenge of improving Mexico’s security institutions saw little headway. From the outset, Peña Nieto continued the institutional merry-go-round that is typical of incoming presidencies, launching the gendarmerie and dissolving the Ministry of Public Security. Rather than considering Mexico’s needs, these changes seemed geared toward putting his stamp on the country’s security policy. The time, effort, and money spent on this reshuffle could have instead buttressed existing institutions.
Peña Nieto also failed to tackle the endemic problems plaguing police. The persistent poor performance and marred reputation of Mexico’s police force are beyond the scope of a single administration, but Peña Nieto did little to improve it, which he could have done by strengthening anti-corruption measures within police departments or funding improved salaries for officers.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy
Peña Nieto also oversaw the uneven final implementation of the 2008 judicial reform, which sought to overhaul the trial system. As previously reported by InSight Crime, the reform was initially lauded, but its potential has been limited by insufficient training for judges and lawyers, inadequate funding, and other defects.
Mexico’s budget tightening also left its security agencies with fewer resources. Plataforma Mexico, a criminal database and information center created by Calderón, was rendered essentially obsolete after funding cuts. In 2017, Peña Nieto pushed a spending bill that included the first slash to security funding in a decade.
Corruption and Cover-ups
Mexico’s inability to tackle corrupt and abusive officials has long increased the power of criminal groups, undermined the government’s moral high ground, and hindered efforts to secure public cooperation on security issues.
Unfortunately, Peña Nieto’s government allowed the impunity to continue, deepening the public perception of a dishonest and incompetent state. The federal government’s investigation into the 2014 disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College was marked by corruption and cover-ups, serving only to muddy the waters and obscure the chain of responsibility for the presumed massacre.
Before the disappearance of the college students, Mexican soldiers allegedly summarily executed 15 of 22 criminal suspects shot to death in a warehouse in the central Mexican city of Tlatlaya. A military court later acquitted six of seven soldiers charged in the killings. One soldier was convicted on charges of failure to obey orders, and he served a year in prison. A recent order, however, to reopen the investigation offers some hope that the extrajudicial killings will not go unpunished.
Even beyond Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya, the government’s record is littered with examples of unpunished human rights abuses. According to reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, the use of forced interrogation tactics by Mexican police routinely include the rape and torture of suspects and witnesses.
These and other issues are clearly not solely the outgoing president’s fault. But Peña Nieto leaves his successor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a nation steeped in violence and a populace deeply distrustful of the state. The correct path forward is murkier than ever.