Peña Nieto in Risky Political Situation Amidst Trump Visit

By, Desmond Molloy SAR ’19

Visits from foreign leaders are usually steeped in prestige and fanfare, as both guest and host emphasize the deep ties between their countries in public, often while negotiating security or economic agreements behind closed doors. President elect Donald Trump’s September visit to Mexico City contained none of those elements. While the furor over Trump’s plans for a wall between the two countries monopolized headlines on both sides of the border for weeks afterward, the visit’s greatest impact was on embattled Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The leader of the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was publicly castigated for welcoming Trump after the latter’s controversial comments about Mexican migrants in the United States. Already struggling with scandal, Trump’s visit may be the last straw.

Prior to Peña Nieto’s election, Mexico seemed to be stuck in a perpetual tide of economic and political corruption. Felipe Calderon, the first president from the conservative National Action Party, focused wholly on suppressing the country’s massive drug cartels, which have fueled violent crime from Baja California to the Yucatan (1). Despite his best efforts, the cartels continued to grow throughout his tenure. While Calderon’s offensive drove several of the drug lords out of their traditional power bases in the arid north, giving crime-plagued border states like Durango much-needed relief, the cartels simply moved into once peaceful areas. Subsequently Peña Nieto took office at one of the most volatile points in modern Mexican history.

The new president had new priorities. Mexico’s economy had not fared well during Calderon’s administration and fear of the cartels and high levels of public corruption contributed to a toxic business environment. The situation grew worse after the 2008 financial crisis, when American demand for Mexican goods dropped off. Before taking office, Peña Nieto was governor of the State of Mexico, one of the country’s most globally integrated and wealthiest regions (the state is named for neighboring Mexico City). Hoping that growth in the legal economy would crowd out the cartels, he chose to pour his energy into an ambitious reform program. He decided to push legislation that would enable foreign petroleum companies to buy drilling rights for offshore oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and allow some limited privatization in the aging telecommunications sector, amongst other changes. The reforms were not without controversy (2). Many members of the Mexican Congress accused Peña Nieto of selling out to multinational corporations (3). The country’s most powerful teachers’ union walked out shortly afterward, angered by proposals to limit their power. Nevertheless, Mexicans frustrated by years of economic stagnation were open to change. Despite Peña Nieto’s presidency hitting rough patches, his economic reforms have picked up steam. While an initial auction of drilling rights last year failed to attract bidders, a second round in January was highly competitive and increased government revenue substantially. (4)

But Peña Nieto’s decision to focus on the economy seems to have come at the expense of maintaining other parts of the Mexican government. The first signs of trouble came two years into the administration. Investigative journalists revealed that his wife lived in a mansion owned by a company that did frequent business with the government. In a country long troubled by high levels of political corruption, the issue indicated that Peña Nieto’s promises of transformation had fallen short when it came to public sector integrity. Matters grew worse a few months later, when the neglected drug war reared its head. Cartels seized the reins in Guerrero, a major drug-producing state in the north, sending homicides and other violent crime skyrocketing. In June of 2014, 43 students from a state teachers’ college vanished. Their burned bodies were later found along the side of a road. It is widely believed that local policemen kidnapped the students, who frequently protested government policies, and turned them over to cartel operatives. Mexicans angered by years of violence turned on Peña Nieto, who they felt had failed to live up his promises of political transformation. Despite a relatively successful economic platform, the visit from President elect Donald Trump may be the last straw for Mexicans already distrustful of their mismanaged presidency.

Noriega, Robert F., and Felipe Trigos. “Why Isn’t Mexico’s Security Strategy Working?” June 12, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2016.

2. “Mexico Bent on Structural Reforms Despite Oil Price Fall.” World Economic Forum. January 22, 2016. Accessed October 31, 2016.

3. Naim, Moises. “Good Mexico vs. Bad Mexico.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. November 19, 2014. Accessed October 31, 2016.

4. Ibid.


Photo Credit: NY Times