Recent months have seen the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto grappling with Donald Trump, who has besmirched Mexican immigrants in the US and promised a variety of retaliatory measures against the US’s southern neighbor.
But Trump’s attacks are just the international dimension of the problems facing Peña Nieto, his government, and his center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party.
At home, his government and his party have made policy missteps and become embroiled in a number of scandals, involving graft and corruption — messes of their own creation.
Peña Nieto was widely praised upon taking office in December 2012 for a six-year term, called a sexenio.
He got credit for pursuing reform packages addressing Mexico’s telecommunications and oil industries. Moreover, the first two years of his term saw steady declines in deadly violence, which had hit shocking peaks during the final years of his predecessor’s term.
That decline in homicides has seen a sharp reversal, however, and high-profile incidents like the Ayotzinapa disappearance have undercut the Peña Nieto government’s claim to a sound security strategy.
Between 2012 and 2013, homicide cases, as measured by the National Public Security System, fell 15.7% and then dipped 14.6% between 2013 and 2014.
But from 2014 to 2015, total homicide cases ticked up 8.8%, and 2016 is on pace to see 20.2% more homicide cases than 2015.
Since official data on violence is shaped by political concerns at the state and federal levels, the figures reported may well understate the number of homicides in Mexico over the last several years.
“When violence seems to be going down, authorities love to take the credit. … That’s what we heard for two years” David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider in September.
“Well, when the numbers go up, it’s like, what, did you suddenly stop doing those things? Did you suddenly stop running your police forces in the same way?” Shirk said.
“They don’t quite know what to say,” he added.
Friends in high places
Peña Nieto’s personal dealings while in office have also inspired criticism.
The “Casa Blanca” scandal that broke in late 2014 found the president’s family buying an upscale home in Mexico City on favorable terms from a government contractor run by Peña Nieto’s longtime friend.
With that and other suspect property dealings, Peña Nieto was compelled to appoint someone to investigate his government’s alleged conflicts of interest. He chose a man who was reportedly a friend to him and his finance minister, creating another conflict of interest.
That appointee found no wrongdoing, a verdict greeted by Mexicans with dismay but little surprise.
Peña Nieto has also drawn heat for his more recent legal maneuvers. In November, Mexico’s senate approved Raul Cervantes to be the country’s attorney general.
Cervantes, a PRI member, was the party’s legal counsel, and “his cousin is a guy by the name of Humberto Castillejos, who is the judicial adviser, if you will, directly to Peña Nieto,” Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider in November
“And undoubtedly he had something to do with Cervantes being named the attorney general,” Vigil said.
Cervantes was approved for the position as the office was being remade into an independent prosecutor’s position.
In that role, Cervantes would serve for nine years, and he couldn’t be fired by the president — Peña Nieto or whoever succeeds him in 2018.
Given those circumstances, the appointment was seen as another effort by the PRI to shield itself from legal recourse.
“Peña Nieto wants somebody to basically protect his interests and not move forward on investigations, particularly PRI governors, PRI corrupt officials,” said Vigil, author of of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel.“
“And that is one of the main reasons there’s some skepticism and concerns within the rank-and-file of the Mexican attorney general’s office,” Vigil added.
Peña Nieto backed down at the end of November, proposing a change that would empower the senate to appoint the country’s first independent prosecutor.
Peña Nieto’s approval ratings have trended downward during his first three years in office, deflated by his missteps at home and abroad. But the PRI’s self-inflicted wounds haven’t all come from presidential matters.
A number of the PRI’s state governors have been implicated in corruption schemes and other misdeeds. Several of them have gone on the run.
Tomas Yarrington, governor of the northeastern state of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2004, is accused of profiting from the network of the Gulf cartel, which funneled cocaine to the US for much of the 2000s. Yarrington was indicted in the US on a number of charges, and he has been on the run since 2012.
Moreira, who has never been formally charged, was released by Spanish authorities a week after his arrest.
US authorities seized a property in Texas registered to Moreira’s mother in relation to an investigation “into millions of dollars that were reportedly stolen form the coffers” of Coahuila.
This week, Moreira — whose brother, Rubén, is currently governor of Coahuila — announced that he was looking to run for a local deputy position next year; a position that comes with immunity from arrest.
But in the gallery of PRI officeholders accused or convicted of graft and corruption, Javier Duarte, the PRI governor of Veracruz from 2010 until October this year, stands out.
A still unfolding investigation mounted by Mexican news site Animal Politico has uncovered millions of dollars in missing federally allocated funds and found that Duarte’s administration funneled $35 million to shell companies, in addition to numerous properties in Mexico and abroad acquired by Duarte himself.
In September, the Mexican attorney general’s office said it would begin an investigation of Duarte. That same month, the PRI stripped him of his membership rights — the first time in the party’s history that it had done so.
On October 12, Duarte stepped down from his governorship to fight what he called a “campaign” against him.
At the end of that month, the PRI expelled him.
In November, Duarte then fled the state, and possibly Mexico and remains on the lamb (though new posts appeared on his Facebook page this month).
And Duarte — along with César Duarte and Roberto Borge, the former PRI governors of Chihuahua and Quintana Roo, respectively — were cited as Peña Nieto as indications that his party was experiencing a “renewal from within.”
But their fall from grace, and that of many of their party mates, likely contributed to the electoral dubbing the PRI experienced at the polls during gubernatorial elections in June this year, when it lost six of the nine governorships it held, including that of Veracruz, which the PRI in its history has never not held.
“The PRI has been in existence since 1929 and they controlled Mexican politics from 1929 to 2000,” Vigil told Business Insider, “and unfortunately the country under the PRI has just been completely muddled in heavy corruption.”
The PRI and its officials are not the only Mexican politicians involved in or suspected of involvement in corrupt dealings; such misdeeds have been committed by many across the country’s political spectrum.
But with such a cloud hanging over it, the PRI finds itself on uncertain ground.
“So the real question I think coming down road … is who’s next? What PRI governor isn’t tainted by corruption enough that he’s automatically excluded himself?” David Shirk, USD professor and director of the school’s Justice in Mexico program, told Business Insider in September.
A November survey found Margarita Zavala of the conservative National Action Party as the leading candidate for Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections, with the support of 30% of respondents, leading the 25% of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (who may reap the most benefit from Trump’s win) of the leftist Morena party and the 16% of PRI candidate Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
In head-to-head matchups in the same poll, Zavala led Lopez Obrador, 53% to 37%, and Osorio Chong, 58% to 27%, while Lopez Obrador topped Osorio Chong 48% to 38%.
“The government has aided López Obrador’s cause by dragging its feet on anticorruption reforms and failing to prosecute theft by its governors,” Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in September.
“Unless the government changes course in the next two years, López Obrador could become Mexico’s next president,” she added.
“What I think the PRI is learning in this sexenio is they are not able to function as effectively in controlling the political situation and controlling what happens in terms of policy outcomes as they were when they had a monopoly,” Shirk told Business Insider.
“They’re learning that as powerful and as strong as the party is, because … it is the still the dominant party of Mexico, but they are not the hegemonic party, the monopolistic party.”