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Peña Nieto’s strategy of denial is undermining his promises

Putting investor security before citizen security isn’t working for Mexico’s economy

September 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

Today is a gruesome anniversary in Mexico: It has been a year since the attack in Iguala, Guerrero, that killed six people and resulted in the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college. The investigation into that attack has been so thoroughly mismanaged by the Mexican state that an international panel of experts working for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently declared that the narrative of events constructed by the Mexican Attorney General’s office was, in a word, impossible. At every turn over the last year, it seems, the Mexican federal government has obfuscated the truth of what happened that night — so much so that Amnesty International has called the government’s actions in response to the report a “desperate cover-up strategy.”

There are a number of explanations for the heartless ineptitude of the Mexican state over the past year: high levels of corruption and deep ties to the drug cartels within the government; partisan politics and the need to protect members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI; and the power afforded to the Mexican military in the U.S.-backed war on drugs. All are important aspects of this story. But the reaction of the Mexican government to the disappearance betrays a motivation closer to the surface: President Enrique Peña Nieto has made clear from his first day in office that his top priority is security for foreign investors, rather than for the Mexican people. But this strategy has produced devastating human rights consequences. What’s more, it isn’t even working to improve the Mexican economy.

When Peña Nieto was inaugurated in December of 2012, it was behind thick security walls protected by cordons of riot police, designed to keep out the thousands of protestors who had gathered in the streets of Mexico City. His promises to bring peace and prosperity — to create a “new” Mexico — were met with understandable skepticism from those who distrusted his party, the PRI.

The PRI had run Mexico as an effective single-party state for seven decades before a democratic opening in 2000 brought the center-right National Action Party (PAN) to power. But under PAN leadership, a militarized war on the drug cartels led to a deepening crisis that left more than 100,000 Mexicans dead and thousands more forcibly disappeared. On inauguration night, Peña Nieto assured Mexicans — the 38 percent who had voted for him, and the majority who had not — that those days were behind them. He would, he promised, change Mexico’s image in the world, make it a destination for investment from abroad and bring a new era of growth to the country.

To fulfill his promise, Peña Nieto pushed through a series of highly controversial economic reforms meant to undermine the power of labor unions, break up communications monopolies and, most strikingly, open Mexican oil fields to foreign investment for the first time since the 1930s.

Peña Nieto may continue to feign deafness, but the chorus of voices calling for systemic reform is only growing louder.

But the president’s relentless focus on security for foreign investors has come at the expense of the security and human rights of Mexico’s people, as a series of high-profile atrocities has shown. The attack on the Ayotzinapa students came just days after revelations of the military’s earlier execution-style killing of civilians in the town of Tlatlaya, which had apparently been covered up. Then in January came allegations that the Federal Police deliberately killed 16 protestors in Apatzingan, Michoacán. This was followed, of course, in July by the escape from a maximum-security federal prison of the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

But when Peña Nieto gave his annual address to the nation last month, these incidents barely registered. Acknowledging only once the “events in Iguala” and the escape of El Chapo, he recognized that these situations had degraded Mexicans’ confidence in state institutions. But his response was, once again, to emphasize Mexico’s image in foreign markets: “We are going to show to the world that we are a responsible country,” he declared, adding, “We will continue to be an attractive country for foreign investment, and in that way we can generate more jobs.”

Allowing the relentless abuse of human rights in order to secure economic outcomes follows a perverse kind of market logic we’ve seen before — Augusto Pinochet’s Chile comes to mind — but thus far Peña Nieto’s strategy hasn’t produced his promised outcomes. Foreign direct investment is stagnant; public debt has grown to 44 percent of GDP; the first auction of new private oil-exploration rights resulted in contracts for only 2 of 14 available oil fields; and the government keeps revising downward its growth expectations. Meanwhile, the peso has fallen to record lows against the dollar, which some analysts attribute to capital outflows on fears of insecurity. On top of all that, wages in Mexico remain stagnant, even as productivity continues to increase. The result is that the percentage of those who live in poverty in Mexico has actually risen in recent years, at the same time that the wealth of Mexico’s richest four individuals more than quadrupled (PDF) between 1996 and 2014. According to Harvard-trained economist Gerardo Esquivel Hernandez, inequality is quickly becoming a crippling problem in Mexico.  

Of course, many of these problems result from economic decisions made long before Peña Nieto’s tenure (and falling world oil prices haven’t helped). But his program represents a doubling-down on those decisions, deepening neoliberal reforms begun in the 1980s and 1990s. This strategy was apparent to those tens of thousands of protestors at Peña Nieto’s inauguration, as well as those who again took to the streets last year to rally against the passage of his reforms, insisting that the changes would only bring more inequality to Mexico. But Peña Nieto, walled in behind his security forces, wasn’t listening.

Now the markets are speaking, making clear that the strategy of putting investor security before citizen security won’t work for Mexico’s economy — or its people. Joining the cries of the parents of those missing students from Ayotzinapa, and the serious reprimands of international human rights experts, a call for systemic change is growing in Mexico. Peña Nieto may continue to feign deafness, but the chorus is only growing louder.

Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of history at Rowan University and a board member of the North American Congress on Latin America.

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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