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Mexico's President Must Not Ignore This Mass Grave of College Kids—or the Corruption It Represents

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Call it the “anti-propaganda strategy”: stop talking about the truth and maybe it will go away. From the beginning of his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto made the tacit decision to change the narrative in Mexico by pushing narco-violence (and the institutional implosion that has come with it in many parts of the country) under the rug and focusing instead on economic reform. The administration stopped parading detainees in front of the cameras, a common practice during the presidency of Felipe Calderon, who saw the struggle not only as a way to gain political legitimacy but also as his own personal mission. Peña Nieto only made an exception when Mexican forces finally apprehended Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most famous drug lord, and even then only showed Chapo ever so briefly, held by the neck by Navy personnel walking him toward a helicopter. After that, the government went silent again—no explanation about what might happen with Chapo out of the picture, and no serious press conferences on the future of his criminal organization or anything else related to the long, bloody war on drugs. For Peña Nieto, it was back to the business of changing the topic. 

Alas, reality is one stubborn mule. Institutional instability in the state of Michoacan has remained as troublesome as ever. The state’s governor became so weak that the federal government had to intervene, sending an envoy that became a sort of viceroy.  He tried to regain a semblance of order for the place, imperiled not only by rival drug gangs but also by the “autodefensas,” a dangerous paramilitary force of shady origins and even shadier intentions. In the end, not much changed. Even though some high-profile members of the local gangs were caught or killed, the leader of the main cartel (“The Knights Templar”) remained at large. Servando Gómez, known as La Tuta, has recently been seen in a series of videos cozying up to local mayors and even the son of the previous governor.

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Things haven’t been much better for the people of Tamaulipas or Coahuila. Violence in Morelos, just south of Mexico City, has turned the once idyllic Cuernavaca (“the city of eternal spring”) into a place where people watch their backs rather than the legendary sunsets.  And then you have Guerrero, current epicenter of Mexico’s nightmare. For a while now, rival gangs have been fighting for control of the state. The result has been the usual parade of horrors: cities besieged (including Acapulco), governments infiltrated, journalists threatened, police corrupted. And death. And vengeance. The latest rearing of the beast’s head produced an atrocity: 43 college students were abducted by local policemen, reportedly under the order of both the police chief and the mayor of Iguala, a man allegedly in cahoots with organized crime (both are on the run). The whereabouts of the kidnapped students remain unknown, but authorities recently found a crude open grave filled with 28 severely burnt bodies. Some showed signs of torture. Forensics are still trying to figure out if the bodies are those of the kidnapped students. Relatives fear the worst.

The disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students will only add to the already horrendous numbers that have made Mexico the world capital of forced disappearances and kidnappings. More than 20 thousand people have vanished since the war on the cartels began. No matter the administration’s preferred narrative, there’s no hiding this sort of reality. Like journalist Carlos Puig recently pointed out, voluntarism has its limits.  

Instead of trying to will reality into submission, the government should tackle Mexico’s biggest problem: corruption. Despite Peña Nieto’s penchant for structural change, his administration has failed to put in place even the most modest reform to fight the country’s deep-rooted corruption. Reform conducive to put an end to judicial impunity was as much of a campaign promise as the recently approved (and highly ambitious) energy reform, yet it has gone nowhere. Lack of reform has been paired with gross inaction. In lockstep with his party’s long held tradition, Peña Nieto has mostly turned a blind eye to numerous allegations of corruption at both the municipal and the state level. In the months before the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa students, Jose Luis Abarca, the allegedly corrupt mayor of Iguala, had numerous and serious complaints filed against him. Federal authorities merely stood by. Now, the man is on the run, along with his chief of police. I’d be surprised if they’re heard from again and amazed if they’re ever prosecuted and sent to jail.

Will Peña Nieto come around and focus on corruption? In the last few days, he has insisted the investigation will go as far as needed in order to find and sanction those responsible for the Guerrero tragedy. Truth is, his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) might have embraced a reformist agenda in key sectors of the economy but it remains unwilling to dismantle the umbrella of impunity that, through a culture built on widespread tolerance of corruption, allowed the party to gather a clientele of interests it both used and served. This gigantic structure of perverse political convenience was crucial to the PRI’s 70-plus-year reign. With Peña Nieto, the question still beckons: does his commitment to reform include an all-out fight against the very impunity that helped build his party? 

A couple of months ago, I was part of a group of six journalists who interviewed the president on national television. It was a rare opportunity: Peña Nieto hardly ever opens up to the press. We spoke about the government’s reform agenda, his preferred topic of conversation. When my turn came, I asked the president about corruption in Mexico. I wanted to know how Peña Nieto planned to prevent Mexico from turning into Russia, especially now that billions of dollars will be in play due to the recent opening of the country’s energy sector to private investors. Peña Nieto shrugged off my concern. Corruption in Mexico "is a cultural matter,” he said, not realizing the implications of the sentence. For a second, the room fell silent. Was he saying there was no escaping corruption? We all knew where such conceptions of Mexican idiosyncrasies have led us before.