Mexico: Upheaval and Paralysis
International Crisis Group
“Mexico cannot go on like this”, President Enrique Peña Nieto said on 27 November, addressing the country from the National Assembly. Most Mexicans would agree, yet Mexico remains embroiled in a political crisis over the disappearance of 43 students, apparently at the hands of police and local thugs and assisted by city officials, in the southwestern state of Guerrero. Protests, sometimes destructive, continue, while on this issue the government seems paralyzed: Peña Nieto’s security and justice reform package is stuck in Congress and his approval ratings have sunk to record lows.
The popular outrage reflects not only Mexicans’ exhaustion with criminal violence but also their deep distrust of a political class widely associated with corruption. So far the government seems unable to turn the tide of public opinion and undertake the institutional reforms needed to combat violence in a country where powerful criminal groups still dominate many areas.
Few would have predicted such a crisis earlier this year. In August, Peña Nieto celebrated passage of legislation to implement a comprehensive energy reform, ending the state-run oil company’s 76-year monopoly and opening the sector to private, including foreign, investment. The energy measures were the culmination of a sweeping package of new laws and constitutional amendments designed to make Mexico more competitive through fiscal and financial reforms, new education policies and an end to monopolies in telecommunications.
Then, on 26 September, several busloads of students from the rural teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa were attacked in the city of Iguala by municipal police, allegedly acting on orders of the mayor. According to witnesses interviewed by federal prosecutors, police turned the students over to members of a criminal gang known as “Guerreros Unidos”, who killed them and then incinerated the bodies in a local dump.
Neither this testimony nor the arrest of more than 80 suspects, including 44 police officers, has quelled demands for justice and the students’ return. Skepticism about the government’s version of events is high; leaked documents allegedly from government sources, published in the magazine Proceso, suggest federal and state police were alerted in real time about the students’ movements and their clashes with local police, but did nothing to stop the bloodshed. “It was the State” – a blanket indictment of all government institutions – has become a protest slogan and social media meme.
Distrust of authorities is magnified in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states, with a history of violent political conflict. A Truth Commission report, just released in October, details killings, torture, forced disappearance and rape by military forces during counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1970s. One of the best known guerrilla leaders – Lucio Cabañas – studied at the Ayotzinapa teachers college, which has a long history of leftist militancy. Small guerrilla groups still reportedly operate in some remote mountainous areas. Self-defence or vigilante groups, as detailed in a 2013 Crisis Group report, also operate in the state, including indigenous groups empowered by law to serve as community police.
The state is also known for the cultivation of marijuana and, to a lesser extent, opium poppies. The criminal cartels that control trafficking in the region have fragmented, residents say, intensifying violence in the region. They are also known for extorting local businesses and buying off authorities: “We have long warned that there is a co-government here between organized crime and municipal authorities”, said a local activist interviewed by Crisis Group in November, adding that there was no democracy in the region, just “narco-politics”.
Peña Nieto’s 10-point Plan
In his 27 November address President Peña Nieto attempted to regain the initiative by presenting another sweeping package of reforms, this time designed to promote security and rule of law. Noting that the country had been shaken by the “cruelty and barbarity” of the students’ disappearance, Peña Nieto said: “After Iguala, Mexico must change”.
But the president’s reform package, sent to Congress in early December for urgent consideration, has run into trouble. Opposition parties and civil-society groups agree on the need to combat corruption in municipal governments and stop the collusion between local police and criminal gangs. But critics say the president’s reforms are both overly radical and grossly inadequate: they would concentrate too much power in national and state institutions while failing to provide an effective means of combating corruption at all levels of government.
The most controversial proposals would consolidate more than 1,800 municipal police forces into 32 state corporations and give the president, with Senate approval, authority to dissolve local governments if the attorney general found evidence of criminal infiltration. Both measures would change Mexico’s federal system of government, requiring constitutional reforms that must be approved first by Congress and then by state legislatures.
Another law would create a National Anti-Corruption System designed to prevent and investigate official malfeasance. Additional, less controversial, measures include establishment of a national “911” emergency number, creation of an individual ID number, and new human-rights laws and regulations designed to expedite prosecution of torture and forced disappearance, create a national system for locating missing persons and implement legislation to aid the victims of crime.
Hopes that Congress might act expeditiously to pass the president’s measures evaporated when the legislature adjourned on 15 December. The two major opposition parties – the National Action Party (PAN) and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) – made it clear they would not rush into constitutional amendments that could transform Mexico’s federal system.
Critics of the police reform, moreover, argue that corruption exists at all levels of law enforcement and handing control of municipal forces to the states will not necessarily solve the problem: more state police have failed the vetting process than municipal police, according to Causa en Común (Common Cause), a government watchdog. Abolishing local forces also undermines efforts to make sure police are “anchored in the community, close to the population and familiar with the sources of conflict”, said security analyst Alejandro Hope. The capacity of local forces to fight crime varies widely, said Edna Jaime of the think tank Mexico Evalúa, citing the municipal police in Monterrey as an example of promising local change.
Mayors from the two opposition parties also oppose allowing federal authorities to take over municipal governments, pointing out that legal mechanisms already exist to oust corrupt officials. Experts from civil-society groups that focus on governance have also objected to the president’s proposal for an anti-corruption system. Unlike a similar measure already submitted to Congress, the new reform would not create an independent authority; instead the system would be subject to a council chaired by the president and including state governors.
Congress reconvenes in February, but the intense debate already underway makes winning approval next year seem remote. Nor are the protests likely to abate any time soon. While most protestors have demonstrated peacefully – including the tens of thousands who marched in downtown Mexico City on 20 November – others have engaged in acts of violence and vandalism. In Chilpancingo, the state capital of Guerrero, protestors, many of them masked, have sacked and burned the local headquarters of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and clashed violently with police.
Legitimacy at stake
Mexico is facing a crisis of legitimacy, say many analysts, which discredits politicians across the political spectrum. But it’s not only the president’s image that has suffered. Confidence in public institutions has also fallen sharply over the past four months, according to a recent poll, including the army (from 48% to 30%), the police (20% to 10%), the parties (16% to 7%) and the judiciary (from 13% to 7%). Nearly twice as many people say they are dissatisfied with democracy in Mexico (61%) as satisfied (31%).
Focusing solely on changes within municipal governments and the police will not be enough to stop the protests and restore confidence. Fairly or unfairly, Mexicans distrust political leaders, public officials and law enforcement at all levels of government. What is needed is a credible, across-the-board effort to root out corruption and restore credibility from local governments to the presidential palace —starting with thorough campaign finance reform. That may mean breaking the “golden rule of Mexican impunity: that politicians do not jail politicians”, writes political scientist Jorge Chabat. At stake is not just one president’s political legacy, but confidence in Mexico’s democracy.
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