Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto kicked off his third year in office this week, expressing pride in the passage of landmark reforms like education, energy, and telecommunications. But during a speech in the southern state of Chiapas Monday, he noted that “we’re not satisfied.”
Neither is the public.
The grisly case of 43 students kidnapped and presumed massacred in Iguala this fall still hangs over President Peña Nieto, his government, and the entire nation. The brutal event became a national symbol of the depth of corruption, the power of criminal groups, the weakness of governance, and police impunity. With presidential approval ratings faltering and violence once again taking center stage, the government is under pressure to actively address the problems at the root of the Iguala case.
Mexico has seen months of mass protests, including another nationwide round last night. Demonstrators in the capital carried signs with photos of a confused-looking president with text that read “Out with Peña!”
“The level of public indignation is so deep, and the credibility of the president – and really of all major political parties – is more at stake than any government before,” says Claudio Lomnitz, director of Columbia University’s Center for Mexican studies in New York. "It could impact his ability to get things done, and with four more years in office, that's a problem."
According to a November Buendía & Laredo poll, 50 percent of Mexicans don’t approve of Peña Nieto’s work, a 13-point drop in approval from last year. The majority of the population (52 percent) says the country is on a bad or very bad path, the most negative perception of the government in six years.
A separate poll published in Reforma newspaper Monday carried even worse results, with 58 percent of Mexicans disapproving of Peña Nieto, the lowest approval rating of any Mexican president in nearly two decades.
A family affair
Brisa Galan and Ivan Castillo marched from the Zocalo to the iconic Angel monument in central Mexico City last night with their three young daughters – one asleep in her stroller.
“The government is the problem. The president doesn’t communicate with us. The government sends a clear message that they just don’t care about us,” says Ms. Galan, a psychologist and events planner. She says she plans to continue protesting as a family because “I want to teach my daughters not to be afraid and not to be indifferent.”
On Monday, Peña Nieto sent a package of constitutional reforms to the Senate, including security measures like centralizing the command of local police under state agencies and giving the federal government power to dissolve local governments infiltrated by drug cartels. His security plan, announced Nov. 27, also included the creation of a “911” national emergency hotline and new national identification cards.
“Everybody likes simple solutions to complex problems,” says David Shirk, the director of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego. “A lot of the things Peña Nieto proposed give lip service to fighting corruption, protecting human rights and ordinary citizens, but it doesn’t go to the heart of the problem: fighting corruption and strengthening weak institutions.”
High-school student Sharon Mondragon passed out newspapers about the protests on Mexico City’s vast Reforma boulevard last night. She says she would like to see the president kicked out of office.
“Really, we need to start from square one. Clear the entire government and hold new elections,” Ms. Mondragon says.
Midterm elections will take place early next year. But, “the larger problem is on the street and public opinion,” says Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society in New York.
“It’s not just the security issue,” Mr. Sabatini says. Peña Nieto campaigned on two things: improving security while taking the image of “bloody Mexico” out of the headlines and tackling reforms that would put Mexico on a new track economically.
But violence and crime are still front and center, and “before his reforms bore fruit, in terms of economic growth and financial investment, he gets hit in the face with this,” Sabatini says. "The people feel deceived."