Mexican stand-off


Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.



A long way to go

The new Mexican president tries to ease himself into an uncomfortable chair

After a five-month hiatus that followed his election win in the summer, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto has finally settled down into the presidency. He has had a busy few days since taking the presidential sash from the outgoing Felipe Calderón. And, just like the election on 1 July, this time of political change has not been free from controversy.

The man at the helm of the Mexican ship is young and claims to be leading his refreshed PRI party out on a new message of national unity and endeavour. But his agenda and the political mystique surrounding the PRI’s comeback have been under scrutiny during the long campaign, the election, the summer interregnum and now the handover of power. Critics say that the PRI is simply an old book that has been re-covered and its return to the top job is like the re-issuing of a booming, controversial tome that once kept all other books out of the shop window and pushed back onto the dusty shelves.

The conservative PAN and their embattled former president were seen as increasingly tired as Calderón’s six-year term was coming to an end. Enrique Peña Nieto has clearly tried to highlight the change at the top by underlining his rhetoric with energetic plans and policy announcements. And, just one day after his inauguration, he oversaw a cross-party agreement to try to overcome the infamous squabbling in Congress. (Even though the PRI retook the presidency, it does not have a majority across the two houses of parliament.) The ‘Pact for Mexico’ saw the three chiefs of the big party beasts (the PRI, the PAN and the left-leaning PRD) agree to work together in three main policy areas: telecommunications; education; and local government finances.

There were serious street protests ahead of and during the handover ceremony on Saturday 1 December. This was nothing new: the president came to power in the face of massive student demonstrations spearheaded by the ‘YoSoy#132′ group and this blog witnessed first-hand the energy of the youth protests which often coupled their anti-PRI heartbeat with a pro-PRD leaning. This time around 92 people were arrested amid violent scenes: police had to fire tear gas to contain protesters who showed their ire at the congressional confirmation of power on a man they see as a puppet for a fraudulent few moving behind the scenes at the top of Mexican society. Stones and firecrackers were thrown, banks and hotels’ windows were smashed and bonfires started in the roads of the capital.

The PRI has had to continue to dampen the ongoing claims that it secured its new election success through the old techniques of vote-buying, smear campaigns and manipulation of the media. But in the summer, after the defeated socialist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a legal challenge to the result, the country’s highest court found in the PRI’s favour and Mr Peña Nieto was free to prepare for his groundbreaking move to the presidency.

But the major national issue that overwhelms all Mexicans and belittles all the legislative changes and electoral arguments is the wave of violent and organised crime that still floods the country. On Sunday, as the co-operation agreement between the three parties was announced, there was a timely reminder of Mr Peña Nieto’s biggest challenge. Nine people were found dead in the northern city of Torreón. In one house, seven men had been dismembered and Chihuahua state authorities found heads, torsoes, arms and legs stuffed in plastic bags; across town another two bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered.

66,000 Mexicans have died and thousands more are desaparecidos after the war that ex-president Calderón declared on the gangsters. Civilians, police officers, members of the armed forces and criminals have all been killed in this civil war. There have been some successes for the authorities (25 of the 37 most-wanted barons have been killed or captured) but the public would like a new way to try to quell the fear of extortion, rape, kidnap and torture that exists across large swathes of the nation. For the moment, the new leader has maintained the deployment of the army and navy on the streets and he has categorically denied that there will be any secret, shadowy handshakes and winks with the gangsters, a tactic his party has been accused of using in the past.

The president may be new but the violence is not. And, in fact, the PRI has never been denied the chance to discuss combative policies to sort out the destruction as it has never fully been beaten out of office. Despite missing out on the last two presidencies it has held on to many state governorships (including Peña Nieto himself in Mexico State from 2005-11) and it too has suffered from the crime: PRI politicians have been threatened and killed.

Mr Peña Nieto has won the hearts of many housewives with his good looks and he undoubtedly won the votes of many Mexicans in the election. But his road to the presidency has not been smooth and the challenges he now faces are not small in number or in scale. He has a long way to go to prove to the country that whilst the Mexican political behemoth may be back, it is a reformed political creature with a taste for fair governance rather than widespread corruption.


This blog has been live in Mexico covering the general election and the disputed results. This is the last post on the 2012 vote from inside the country

As the coverage on this site comes to an end, the tangible discontent from many students and young professionals rumbles on but at less frantic and energetic a pace than last week, when there was more of a momentum behind the mass movement. There appears to be a sighed resignation creeping in: that the result is done and that Enrique Peña Nieto will be the next presidente. However, you would be mistaken for thinking that the movement is over. Their calls for a more open society are as sharp as ever and the leader of the #YoSoy132 told me recently that their work has only just begun. They are determined not to be silenced in their drive for more accountability, more responsibility and more democracy in this nation.

The legal challenges from Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the defeated presidential candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), may be losing a bit of steam. The president of the PAN has accepted and denounced the irregularities identified by the Federal Electoral Institute but has said his party will not back AMLO’s call for the whole set of election results to be contested and officially impugned.

This constant chipping away at the PRI, be it either from the marching students, AMLO’s challenges or from outside media (see videos below) seems to be getting on the nerves of the party’s hierarchy. The president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, has rejected allegations that the PRI carried out voting fraud and the party’s president, Joaquín Coldwell, came out on 10 July and denounced those who say his party gave out gift-cards for the supermarket Soriana in return for votes for Mr Peña Nieto, calling those claims “accusations with a large media coverage but without any demonstrable proof”.

It seems that the PRI is getting tired of the continued questioning of the results and criticism of its glamorous leadership. That said, it would help if their man in the hot-seat were a more accomplished television interviewee. Enrique Peña Nieto has been vilified on social networks over the last couple of days because of a couple of bizarre, stuttering performances in recent live interviews with CNN.

Firstly, he was questioned by Christiane Amanpour about the results, the Soriana crisis, the drugs war and trying to pass bills in a Congress where he lacks a majority. Peña Nieto cruises through the first block of posers but then stutters on the fourth and final question, where he pauses erratically during his wavering response (interview in English and Spanish).

He also suffers the same strange answering technique, a faltering reply punctuated with long pauses, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria for the same news channel (clip below). There has been debate as to whether the president-elect was trying to listen to simultaneous translation (a more harmless reason) or rather being fed the answers in his ear and not doing a very good job of covering up the trick (a less transparent way of facing the media). Watching the Amanpour interview makes the second reason the more plausible, as Peña Nieto has no problem with immediate responses for three answers but then inexplicably stumbles slowly through the fourth. The title of the video “They tell Enrique Peña Nieto what to say in an interview!” shows the uploader to be unashamedly anti-PRI but there is no hiding the politician’s strange responses.

Source: miauctortv, 10 July 2012 (interview in English and Spanish)

Enrique Peña Nieto already has questions hanging over his head (albeit claims that he firmly denies) over an all-too-cosy relationship with media giant Televisa over alleged favourable treatment for him and smear coverage against his rivals. The odd exchanges above with an international channel highlight once again the many media challenges he faces before he can move into Los Pinos. Although he may have the telegenic looks and the soap-star wife, he is going to have to clean up and tidy up his attitude towards press plurality and public presentation before he takes over in the presidency, as he is expected to do on 1 December.

MEXICO ELECTION XV – Pictures of discontent

Tens of thousands of people are marching through Mexico City in protest at the result of the Mexican general elections, which appear to have propelled the PRI, and their candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, back into power.

A partial recount of the vote has not appeased the YoSoy132 movement, at the centre of the latest demonstrations. as the march goes on towards Mexico City’s enormous central ‘Zócalo’ square, here is a selection of the signs from recent post-election marches in the city.

Enrique Peña Nieto has denied that his party bought any votes but that allegation, along with media manipulation and voter intimidation are the three main problems that the protest movement has with the president-elect.

An ignorant public always elects an ignorant government

‘Peña Nieto has the right not to read my work. He does not have the right to be an ignorant president. Yours, Carlos Fuentes’

Carlos Fuentes, one of the most successful Mexican writers, passed away in May. But before that he found himself caught up in the presidential campaign after Enrique Peña Nieto incorrectly said that one of Fuentes’ books, ‘La Silla del Águila’, was written by another Mexican author, Enrique Krauze. The president was criticised heavily and Fuentes himself said a lack of cultural awareness was a big enough failing to disqualify Peña Nieto from the top job.

Mexico did not win – corruption did

This is a reference to the slogan Peña Nieto had emblazoned on the stage behind him during the acceptance speech he made on Sunday night – ‘Ganó México’ (Mexico won)

‘The revolution will not be Televisa-ed’

This girl’s placard refers to the allegations (which the PRI denied and which Televisa have also rebuffed) that the latter, Mexico’s biggest media company, gave favourable coverage to Peña Nieto and waged a smear campaign against his left-wing rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in return for cash.

‘The only fight you lose is the one you abandon’

MEXICO ELECTION XIV – Students on the march

Mexicans appear to have returned the PRI to power in general elections. This blog is covering the results live from inside the country

On Monday 2 July, the day after the former autocratic political behemoth, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, was seemingly put back into power in Mexico (many vote recounts have started after “irregularities” were found), thousands of members of the #YoSoy132 protest movement massed just off Mexico City’s grand Paseo de la Reforma boulevard ahead of a march against the election results, in particular the voting in of Enrique Peña Nieto to the presidency.

Alert! Alert! Watch what is coming: the student fight for Latin America

Mexico without the PRI, Mexico without the PRI

Supporters of the #YoSoy132 movement give their thoughts

MEXICO ELECTION XII – Peña to the presidency

Mexicans have voted in a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the results

A wide selection of exit polls, including the official one calculated by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), show that Enrique Peña Nieto has won the presidency for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after 12 years in opposition. Voting predictions also paint Mexico overwhelmingly red, for the campaign colour of the PRI, in the local, state and federal elections that have also taken place.

In a televised address at 11.20pm, the head of the IFE, Leonardo Valdés Zurita, said that the more than 49m people who had cast a ballot made this the most ‘voted-for’ election in Mexican history. He gave the preliminary results, based on the IFE’s ‘conteo rápido’ system, as:

Josefina Vázquez Mota, from the National Action Party – between 25-27% of the vote

Enrique Peña Nieto, from the PRI-PVEM alliance – between 37-38% of the vote

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the PRD-PT-CM alliance – between 30-31% of the vote

Gabriel Quadri de la Torre, of the New Alliance party – about 2% of the vote

MEXICO ELECTION VIII – Upset still on the cards

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 July, Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is covering the vote live from inside the country

If you were to use the opinion polls alone to choose a winner then Enrique Peña Nieto would have romped home even before he officially declared his candidacy. But if you look wider and harder it is possible to catch glimpses of hope for those wishing to knock the former Mexico State governor from his perch. Speaking with a woman last night in Jilotepec, she rubbished the telephone polls, saying that she never gave an answer when prompted by a calling pollster because “el voto es libre y secreto”. Her actions flew in the face of her own advice, as she told me of her belief that the parties know who has said what in each house and they “will punish you subtly if you say you will not vote for them, by cutting your electricity for example”.

Another woman I spoke to also wrote off the voter surveys. She is a PRD local activist though, so it does serve her party to maintain the hope that the race is still open and that their presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador or AMLO, can still land Los Pinos tomorrow. But she accused the PRI of ‘acarreando’ its ‘supporters’, and that is an allegation I have heard a few times over the past days, even in the traditionally PRI, or priísta state. ‘Acarrear’ roughly translates as bussing people to your rally to inflate the numbers. In Jilotepec I am told all the PRI gives you in return for being driven to their meetings is ‘a sandwich and a piece of fruit – and the people only go because they want some free food’.

The PRD activist glows as she describes the big campaign closing events of last Wednesday. She says the governing party’s candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, filled the 49,000-seater Guadalajara Chivas football stadium of people who attended of their own accord. She denounces Peña Nieto for filling up national Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, which can hold 110,000 people, with ‘supposed supporters who were bussed in for free’. And she then visibly lights up as she recounts the PRD event. AMLO filled the capital’s massive central square and many side roads as well with more than one million people, all still believing that the man affectionately known as ‘Grandpa’ can swipe the presidency from under Peña Nieto’s nose. She firmly denies the PRD would ever ‘acarrear’.

She says many of the protesters in the #YoSoy132 movement have yet to decide who to choose. The activist gets excited by her own calculations – saying that the race is not over and that there could still be one of the biggest surprises in political history tomorrow. However, I found one reservation that some students in Mexico State have about their colleagues and the #YoSoy132 campaign. They are worried that the movement is being manouevred by hidden vested interests working behind the scenes. That may be true; with anti-PRI pro-PRD interests being the most likely to be involved in any such allegations.

But Mexican politics has functioned in a similar way before and even here in such a príista place the actions of the PRI in its 70-year rule as an autocracy – when election results were massaged – are not quickly forgotten. Some quarters see the coronation of Enrique Peña Nieto as imminent and inevitable and it is still likely that he will win. But you cannot deny that there is simmering belief that the PRI can be defeated once again, even if such a result is unlikely. Hasta mañana.

MEXICO ELECTION V – ‘I was close to dying too’

On 1 July Mexico will hold a general election. This blog is live in the country covering the vote

It is late morning in Jilotepec, a small town 90 minutes’ drive northwest of the capital, and the daily heat is starting to build. The municipal seat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is quiet the day after the end of campaigning but there are still a dozen young activists meeting in cool rooms in the flowery quandrangle. The 10ft outside walls which enclose the courtyard are coated with the names of different candidates, painted brightly in the PRI’s colours of red, white and green. The huge neat letters bellow at passers-by that the men and women of the PRI “promise to deliver” and that “Jilotepec is our commitment”.

Inside the party’s town headquarters I speak with José Alberto May Montiel, who is the secretary for electoral action of the PRI’s ‘New Mexico’ youth movement. At 24, he is my age and dressed casually with a baseball cap on to shield his eyes from the bright summer sun. He speaks clearly and calmly about his love for the PRI, the once-dominant party that ruled Mexico as an autocracy for more than 70 years until it lost its parliamentary majority and the presidency in 1997 and 2000.

One of the concerns I have heard from Mexicans as the PRI has built had large lead in the municipal, state, governor, parliamentary and presidential polls is that the party that would be put back in power by the people has not changed in its twelve years in opposition. They are fears that it is still the PRI of old, when winks, nods and backhand deals allowed it to maintain itself in power for decades and get rid of any opposition to its one-party rule. José Alberto admits that the PRI of the past “was bad and there was corruption” but he is iron-firm in his belief that the party has cleaned up its image, got rid of all the old problems and has a fresh, youthful team to lead it back into power.

But what will the PRI do when it gets there? José Alberto says the most important issue is to improve the education system and then to get more Mexicans into jobs. And he says this is how Enrique Peña Nieto is going to combat the appalling violence across the country. He cannot find words enough to condemn the policies of outgoing president, Felipe Calderón, of the National Action Party (PAN), who deployed the Mexican armed forces to fight the gangsters. The PRI activist assures me that Peña Nieto would use “more subtle tactics, such as educating the people better and providing gainful employment” to tempt the gang members away from a life of crime. But these are long-term policies: what does he suggest now? “There is no immediate solution” he confesses.

He tells me that the government knows where Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán is. The most-wanted drug lord in the world, who heads up the powerful Sinaloa organisation, escaped from prison in 2001 and José Alberto is convinced that the PAN, which was in power at the time, facilitated the laughable prison break in which Guzmán made off hidden in a laundry basket.

He closes by recounting a chilling tale from 2010 when Rodolfo Torre Cantú, PRI candidate for governor in the northern state of Tamaulipas, was shot dead alongside two of his advisers. José Alberto was working on Torre Cantú’s campaign and was travelling in the convoy that was attacked by armed men. He tells me of the frightening ambush and looks at me straight in the eye to say “I was close to dying too that day”. Once again, he is certain that it was not a simple gangster attack and he accuses the police of being involved at some level. His happiness from earlier fades slightly and with a huge poster of Enrique Peña Nieto behind him, his gaze ahead suggests that he realises on a very personal level that size of the task facing his beloved candidate to try to bring some semblance of calm back to the streets of his country. But he is sure that the PRI has changed itself and can change Mexico as well if it wins power again this Sunday.