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Peña Nieto sets sights on future, critics point to past

Enrique Peña Nieto has declared himself the winner of Mexico's July 1 presidential elections. He hopes to break with his PRI party's infamous past, but his critics say he has a dubious record of his own.


Former Mexico State governor Enrique Peña Nieto declared victory in presidential elections on Sunday. A quick count by Mexico's electoral authorities gave him around 37 percent of all votes, a clear lead that hailed the return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 12 years in opposition.

Speaking to supporters in a nationally televised speech, Peña Nieto, 45, repeated campaign promises to bury the PRI’s reputation for autocratic and coercive rule. “There is no return to the past,” he said in reference to his party’s uninterrupted 71-year reign during most of the 20th century.

While Peña Nieto has promised to be a modernising force in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, the PRI’s –as well as his own– troubled history guarantee he will find little leeway among democracy and human rights' observers.

Big challenges ahead for Mexico's new president

Rupert Knox, a Mexico researcher with Amnesty International, said the PRI was still largely remembered for intimidating and co-opting political opponents to keep its grip on power. “There have been improvements in Mexico since then, notably in freedom of information,” Knox said. “We will remain vigilant that these gains are not diluted or weakened under the PRI.”

“One of the big questions is which PRI will show up to govern?” said Christopher Wilson, an associate with the Washington-based Mexico Institute.

The scholar said that Peña Nieto had indeed shown a new side of the PRI, pointing to top campaign advisor Luis Videgaray as an example of reform-minded energy within the candidate’s camp. Videgaray holds a doctoral degree in public finances from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT.

“But Peña Nieto is also surrounded by the PRI’s old guard, or the ‘dinosaurs’, as they are known in Mexico. We are very interested to see who he will name to his cabinet,” Wilson added.

Stephen Donehoo, a Latin America expert with McLarty Associates, a Washington-based strategic advisory firm, agreed that though the PRI has many new and more enlightened members, the party structure has not changed much in the past years.

“If Peña Nieto wins, he will have lots more say in the party, but the traditional leaders and PRI governors will still exercise plenty of power,” Donehoo noted.

The ghost of Atenco

The youthful and slick-haired Peña Nieto may be Mexico’s fresh new face, but he is not coming into the presidency with a clean slate. Critics are unwilling to forget the 2006 civil unrest in the city of San Salvador Atenco, in which two protesters were killed.

“The case of Atenco is emblematic of the human rights abuses in Mexico,” said Amnesty’s Knox. “As governor, Peña Nieto first ordered a crackdown, then denied that abuses took place in brazen fashion, and has failed to investigate. It’s clearly not a good starting point for him.”

While Mexico’s Human Rights Commission documented excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and dozens of cases of sexual assault by police in Atenco in May 2006, Peña Nieto and other state authorities have denied blame in the affair. The Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights accepted in late 2011 to hear the case of 9 women who say they were sexually terrorised by security forces who took part in the Atenco crackdown. The case is still pending.

“There is no indication from Peña Nieto’s time as governor that human rights were a priority, or that he was willing to introduce real measures to improve things. His record is not strong,” Knox admitted.

Atenco is also significant because Peña Nieto’s opponents highlight the incident as proof that the country’s main television networks are tacitly allied to the PRI. Critics say Televisa, Mexico’s largest TV group, gave the incident soft coverage, with little scrutiny of Peña Nieto’s role as governor.

Citing undemocratic practices in general, and biased media coverage in particular, the student-led #YoSoy132 movement organized massive protest marches against Peña Nieto in the run-up to the election.

“In a letter to Amnesty International Peña Nieto has stated his commitment to human rights,” said Knox. “But we’re waiting to see it put into practice.”

The cartels question

Addressing another major concern surrounding his presidential bid, Peña Nieto also said on Sunday that he would not strike any deals with Mexico’s notoriously violent drug cartels.

Many observers have expressed concern that Peña Nieto would concede latitude to the cartels in exchange for a drop in violence.

The Mexican government's war on drugs has claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people in the past six years, tarnishing the country’s image abroad and provoking a strong rejection of President Felipe Calderon and his conservative PAN party among voters.

The Mexico Institute’s Wilson said Peña Nieto would not give cartels a free pass, but would likely focus his security efforts on extortion, kidnapping and homicide, rather than trafficking.

“Peña Nieto has said he will try to address the crimes that most affect people’s lives,” Wilson explained. “That sounds like a reasonable strategy to me, simply because Mexico’s security forces have a limited capacity.”

For McLarty’s Donehoo, Peña Nieto has little choices when it comes to dealing with the cartels. “He realizes that today, they are a real threat to Mexico's future. His only choice is whether to go after them harder than Calderon,” Donehoo said.

The security analyst said that Peña Nieto’s hiring of Colombia's famously talented police commander, Oscar Naranjo, was an indicator of the path he had chosen.

What is less certain, and perhaps equally important, is how the drug cartels will receive Peña Nieto. Will they try to confront, or co-opt Mexico's new president? Donehoo asked.

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