IN THE first 18 months after he became Mexico’s president in December 2012 Enrique Peña Nieto enjoyed extraordinary success. Through deft political manoeuvring he enacted a series of structural reforms of his country’s sluggish economy that had eluded his three predecessors, including a historic constitutional amendment overturning a ban on private investment in energy dating from the 1930s. But then it all started to go wrong.
First a heavy-handed tax reform alienated private business. The murder of 43 student-teachers in September 2014 by drug traffickers in cahoots with local authorities in the southern state of Guerrero shocked the country. The revelation that the president’s wife and his finance minister had both acquired luxury houses with the help of Grupo Higa, a construction company that had won government contracts, pointed to conflicts of interest at the top (though all denied wrongdoing). The transport minister then hastily cancelled a contract he had awarded to a consortium including Grupo Higa to build a $3.6 billion high-speed railway.
In July the escape from prison of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s most notorious drug trafficker, added humiliation to embarrassment. All this has undermined public support for Mr Peña. In a country that is traditionally deferential to its presidents, his approval rating slumped to 34% in the wake of Mr Guzmán’s flight. The government is the butt of remorseless contempt among Mexico City’s chattering classes. Many Mexicans point to two big problems with which they associate Mr Peña’s administration—the continuing lack of security and the prevalence of corruption.
Officials seem both bemused and resentful at the lack of credit the government gets for its achievements. After all, while Mexico’s economy may not be stellar, it continues to grow steadily, which is more than can be said for some others in Latin America. The reforms are starting to show results that people can appreciate, such as a sharp fall in mobile-phone charges. Congress has approved a constitutional amendment to set up a grandly named National Anti-Corruption System. Many things, from education reform to the car industry, are going well in Mexico.
Even on security, the full picture is more mixed than the headlines. The murder rate fell from 2012 until March this year, though it is now edging up again. Several northern states where mafia violence raged are much calmer. In the central state of Michoacán, the federal government has defanged both a particularly vicious drug gang and local vigilantes. A new programme of community policing in some of the most dangerous neighbourhoods (with a total population of 2.5m) has “measurable results”, says a security official.
But the government’s failures are more visible. These include Guerrero, which has become one of the world’s biggest sources of heroin. Parts of the state are “totally penetrated by organised crime”, the official admits. To his critics, Mr Peña has failed to give priority to security and the rule of law partly because many local politicians in his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) benefit from the status quo. That applies even more to corruption. Congress is due to approve by May the laws required to implement the new anti-corruption system. If there is a “50% chance” that these laws will have teeth it is because Mexican society and academia are becoming increasingly conscious of the cost of corruption, says Mauricio Merino of CIDE, a university.
Mr Peña’s most surprising failure is political. Paradoxically, the president who piloted ambitious reforms has proved incapable of reacting to events. “They don’t know how to respond to public opinion,” says Héctor Aguilar Camín, a historian, of Mr Peña’s small coterie of aides. He calls the problem “the silence of Los Pinos” (the presidential offices). In the days when the PRI ran Mexico as a one-party state, presidents were often ruthless in sacking subordinates who failed. Not Mr Peña: the finance, transport and interior ministers all remain in their jobs, despite the conflicts of interest and Mr Guzmán’s escape. The president seems to place personal loyalty above public accountability.
In the narrowest of political terms his judgment may be correct. Despite all the scandals, the PRI and its allies kept their congressional majority in a mid-term election in June. Mr Peña may yet be able to get his chosen successor elected in 2018 merely by conserving the PRI alliance’s hard-core vote of around 36%. That is because the opposition is fragmented, and the constitution does not require a run-off ballot. The problem is that this formula will intensify Mexicans’ disillusionment with their still-young democracy.