Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto has made turning the page on the violence of the past administration one of his foremost goals, but his declining approval rating raises questions about whether this strategy is working.
Despite a series of political and security successes, Peña Nieto has failed to consolidate himself as a broadly popular leader. On the contrary, according to polling firm Consulta Mitofsky, the proportion of Mexicans expressing disapproval of Peña Nieto's government has increased every quarter since he was inaugurated in December 2012. In the most recent survey -- following the fifth quarter of his time in office -- for the first time more people disapproved of Peña Nieto (50.8 percent) than approved of him (47.6 percent - see Mitofsky graphic).
This is far worse than the results for either of Peña Nieto's two immediate predecessors at a corresponding point in their presidency. While Vicente Fox showed an even lower approval rating than Peña Nieto after his fifth quarter, this was the only time in his presidency that his numbers dipped below 50 percent, according to Mitofsky, and for the first four quarters his approval rating was significantly higher. Felipe Calderon's rating was under 60 percent just twice during the corresponding time period (see Mitofsky graphic).
The latest figure represents an approximately 15-point rise in disapproval of Peña Nieto since Mitofsky showed a favorable rating 20 percent higher than the unfavorable figure in December 2012. The current president's lack of popularity raises serious questions about the sustainability of his security policy.
InSight Crime Analysis
This steady decline has coincided with a series of triumphs on security issues, with the captures of various capos. The most notable was the arrest of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, on February 22. Peña Nieto's forces also arrested Zetas boss Miguel Angel Treviño, alias "Z40," in July of 2013. With less fanfare, Mexican officials arrested Beltran Leyva leader Arnoldo Villa Sanchez and Gulf Cartel boss Mario Ramirez Treviño, alias "X20."
The impact of the arrest of Chapo Guzman, the biggest fish caught in decades, has yet to manifest itself as the polling for Mitofsky mentioned above was taken prior to his arrest. However, the firm's surveys the week after Mexican marines nabbed Guzman in Mazatlan observed only a three-point bump in Peña Nieto's approval rating. Furthermore, upticks in approval from one-off events like the arrest of a major capo are typically short-lived.
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In addition to the high profile captures, Mexico's murder rate has fallen significantly under Peña Nieto. In 2012, the National Public Security System (SNSP) registered 21,732 murders nationwide. In 2013, Peña Nieto's first full year in office, that figure dropped to 18,447, a decline of 15 percent. Through three months of 2014, the national figure was on pace to reach roughly 16,200, though there are often upward revisions over the course of a year.
Nonetheless, opinions of insecurity in Mexico largely fail to correspond with these apparently positive results. The same Mitofsky poll indicates that 75 percent of respondents have a worsening perception of security, and this is the third consecutive survey in which this percentage has stagnated or grown. As InSight Crime reported in October, in the first national victimization survey of the Peña Nieto era, perceptions of insecurity went up by about six points.
Notwithstanding the attention on the takedowns of major capos, Peña Nieto has largely made good on his promise to downplay his security successes. Unlike Calderon, who turned his security officials into celebrities, regularly gave passionate speeches on security, and staked his reputation on taking on drug traffickers, Peña Nieto is seeking his legacy elsewhere. The media coverage generated intentionally by the government is far less than six years ago.
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All of this presents a bit of a logical conundrum: Peña Nieto has both shifted Mexico's focus away from one of the nation's most problematic issues while also evidently going a long way to lessening its impact, yet appears to be receiving no credit for either. This seems to suggest that his deeper strategy -- turning security from a liability into a non-issue or giving it a positive outlook -- is failing, despite the fact that many of his interim goals have been achieved. How can this be explained?
Another explanation is that despite the improvements, security remains a challenge in much of Mexico. Regions like Guerrero and Michoacan are experiencing extreme violence, and much of the North continues to bleed and there are serious doubtsas to whether the drop in murders is directly related to organized crime. Moreover, the rates of reported kidnapping and extortion, two crimes that typically prey on the civilian population, both increased from 2012 to 2013. In short, marginal improvements in the murder rate and regular arrests of kingpins, laudable though they may be, are not enough to make Mexicans feels safe.
Ultimately, the results of Peña Nieto's public relations shift on security are most evident in foreign media coverage of Mexico. The most emblematic example is Time magazine, which earlier this year ran a cover story on Peña Nieto under the headline "Saving Mexico." Three years ago, the headline accompanying a cover story on Mexico had a decidedly different tone: "The War Next Door." Other US media have adopted a similar, if more muted, shift in their coverage of Mexico.
But none of this has translated into a Mexico in which citizens have recovered the sense of security lost during the Calderon administration, a fact illustrated by the two polls mentioned above as well as many others. Peña Nieto's presidency remains in its early stages, and perceptions of security often lag the events on the ground, so there is still a chance that he will be able to overcome the poor popular opinion. His security policy cannot be considered a full success unless he does so.