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The end of Mexican democracy

With help from the Obama administration, Peña Nieto is brutally reshaping Mexican society

November 26, 2014 2:00AM ET

Even before the tragic kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in late September, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto was already teetering on the brink. His neoliberal reform agenda, systematic repression of protests and iron-fisted control over the media had turned him into the most unpopular president in recent Mexican history.

The enormous unrest that has erupted in recent days is, therefore, not only about criminality and violence but also social power and democratic politics. And what is at stake in today’s battle for Mexico is not just the future of peace and prosperity for those living south of the Rio Grande but also democracy and justice north of the border.

Before taking office Dec. 1, 2012, Peña Nieto penned an op-ed for The Washington Post in which he tried to assuage concerns about his intimate connections with the most corrupt and backward old guard of the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country from 1929 until 2000. He encouraged observers to forget about the party’s past and instead look at its “plan to open Mexico’s energy sector to national and foreign private investment.”

Writing on the eve of his first meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington, Peña Nieto claimed that such reforms would “contribute to guaranteeing North American energy independence,” since “Mexico holds the fifth-largest shale gas reserve in the world, in addition to large deep-water oil reserves and a tremendous potential in renewable energy.”

Obama, the U.S. military and Congress eagerly accepted Peña Nieto’s Faustian bargain. They would blindly support his presidency in exchange for quick action on energy reform.

Over the last two years, both sides have loyally held up their ends of the deal. In December 2013, Peña Nieto pushed through historic reforms to Article 27 of the constitution that broke up the state monopoly over the oil industry and opened the floodgates to speculation and vast private investment by international oil giants. The majority of Mexicans adamantly rejected these reforms, but they were steamrolled through the National Congress and passed by a majority of the state legislatures in only 10 days without debate and in flagrant violation of the democratic process. 

Such quick legal action authorizing the transfer of public oil rents to private hands fulfilled the wildest dreams of Washington. The U.S. has pushed for years without avail to achieve similar reforms in occupied Iraq without success. But in Mexico a loyal and corrupt president proved to be much more effective than direct military occupation.

Unsurprisingly, most of the international press vigorously applauded the oil reform. “As Venezuela’s economy implodes and Brazil’s growth stalls, Mexico is becoming the Latin oil producer to watch — and a model of how democracy can serve a developing country,” wrote the editorial board of The Washington Post. The Financial Times excitedly proclaimed that “Mexico’s historic vote to open its oil and gas sector to private investment after 75 years yoked to the state is a political coup for Enrique Peña Nieto.” And Forbes magazine argued that although previous President Felipe Calderón “may have pushed for real oil reforms, it’s Peña Nieto who will get the spot in the history books.”

Recent actions by Mexican authorities suggest that they continue to have the undying support of Washington.

Since Peña Nieto took power, the U.S. government has not issued a single condemnation of corruption or human rights violations in Mexico. This in a context in which leading international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Article 19 and dozens of local NGOs have documented a scandalous increase in the repression of protest and violence against the press during the present administration. 

The muted response by the U.S. government to the Sept. 26 student massacre is part of a broader trend of looking the other away.

But the U.S. government has not just stood by the sidelines. It has also ramped up its direct involvement with the drug war in Mexico. Congress has appropriated billions of dollars to fund the Mexican government security apparatuses in recent years. Mexican and U.S. authorities have set up elite fusion centers throughout the country for sharing intelligence information. And The Wall Street Journal just revealed that U.S. agents dress up in the uniforms of Mexican military personnel to participate directly in special missions, such as the recent arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the powerful leader of the Sinaloa cartel. 

Now that the legitimacy of the Peña Nieto administration has come tumbling down like a house of cards, starkly symbolized by the public burning of an enormous effigy of him in Mexico City’s central Zócalo Square last Thursday, the question on everyone’s minds is whether the United States government will fight to the end to defend Peña Nieto or if there is still any room in the U.S. political establishment to maneuver for peace and democracy south of the Rio Grande.

Recent actions by Mexican authorities suggest that they continue to have the undying support of Washington. According to multiple witnesses, during the enormous protests Nov. 20 in Mexico City masked provocateurs firebombed police and then stood by and watched as authorities indiscriminately manhandled journalists and human rights observers and detained innocent students. Peña Nieto immediately accused 11 students of serious federal crimes such as terrorism, organized crime and conspiracy and has locked them up in high security prisons hundreds of miles from the capital. 

And this Sunday, Mexico’s powerful Secretary of the Marines, Gen. Vidal Francisco Soberón, gave an unprecedented display of political activism when he publicly stated that the armed forces are not only committed to combating organized crime and narcotrafficking but are also ready to intervene in support of Peña Nieto’s neoliberal political project to “move Mexico.” WikiLeaks cables and independent reports have revealed that the U.S. government is particularly close to and prefers to work with the Mexican marines over other Mexican law enforcement institutions. 

If the situation continues along the present course, Mexico may soon follow the path of Peru during the auto-coup of Alberto Fujimori in 1992 — all while the Obama administration looks on. Unless the citizens of the United States rise up in support for and solidarity with their Mexican neighbors, the country could fall prey to a new U.S.-backed dirty war against students and activists similar to the repression during the 1970s and 1980s, which took hundreds of thousands of lives in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. There is still time to act before North America today becomes a copy of Central America 30 to 40 years ago.

John M. Ackerman is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the editor-in-chief of The Mexican Law Review and a columnist for La Jornada newspaper and Proceso magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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