Mexican leader’s popularity plunges amid murder and scandal

A series of recent gaffes and political missteps have sent President Enrique Peña Nieto’s approval ratings plunging, dragging many Mexicans into a mood of national disgust.

Since the end of the summer, Peña Nieto has seen his image morph from an agenda-setting president leading a drive to transform the country to that of an indecisive leader, tolerant of corruption and overwhelmed by a mounting wave of protests.

The abduction, and likely murder, of 43 student teachers at the end of September remains a festering sore that’s infuriated some Mexicans and shed light on the frequent collusion between the political class and organized crime.

But it’s only one of the factors that have converged into a moment of political crisis. A scandal swirls around Peña Nieto and his wife over a mansion built for them by a favored government contractor at a time when the nation’s growth is lackluster and a tax overhaul bites into the middle class. On the political front, Peña Nieto has alienated elders in his political party, ruling with a tight core of young aides.

“The political cost to the president has been really astonishing,” said Raymundo Riva Palacio, a columnist for El Financiero, a business newspaper.

Peña Nieto’s approval rating has fallen 19 percentage points since August, to 39 percent, according to a national survey of 1,200 Mexican adults released this week by Grupo Reforma, a media conglomerate. More significant is the plunge among “opinion leaders” in Mexican society, who gave him 78 percent backing when he came to office in late 2012. Now only 21 percent support him, the survey found.

“Discontent is very strong,” said Riva Palacio, adding that Peña Nieto’s aides have flailed for ways to right their listing ship. “They don’t even realize that they don’t understand what to do.”

The deteriorating situation has alarmed some global investment groups.

“The government, which passed groundbreaking reforms on education and energy, as well as reforms to begin breaking monopolies and to strengthen the fiscal position, has moved from dictating the national agenda to reacting to protests,” Benito Berber of Nomura Securities, an investment house, said in a note Tuesday.

Some of Peña Nieto’s biggest blunders touch on the case of the “Ayotzinapa 43,” student teachers in Guerrero state whom municipal police rounded up in the city of Iguala on the night of Sept. 26, then later turned over to criminal hit men.

Peña Nieto demonstrated little initial concern about the missing students, and the federal government delayed nearly two weeks before deploying 10,000 police and investigators to hunt for them. On Nov. 7, the attorney general said a probe had determined that the United Warriors gang had killed the students and burned their bodies in a huge pyre, bagged their ashes and tossed them into a river.

The mayor of Iguala and his wife, who initially went on the lam, were caught and charged with collusion with the criminal gang.

Amid public outrage over the student killings, Peña Nieto avoided traveling to Guerrero state, finally taking his first trip there Thursday. But his visit was limited to a zone of luxury hotels in Acapulco that was swarming with federal police.

At first, public horror over the events in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most crime-ridden states, focused on the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, which has controlled the state for nearly a decade. The party’s governor resigned. Party founder Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, a three-time presidential candidate, quit in dismay Nov. 25. The party is on the ropes, and some who have left its ranks are its most severe critics.

“It has no future. It is a political cadaver,” said Gilberto López y Rivas, a former federal deputy for the party who no longer claims any affiliation.

But many Mexicans now blame Peña Nieto, rather than the leftist party, for what happened to the students.

The president has made other blunders.

He ordered the cancellation of the winning bid for a massive high-speed rail project on Nov. 6, aware that days later a muckraking journalist team would reveal that a minority Mexican partner in the Chinese-led group that won the bid had custom-built a $7 million mansion for his soap-opera-star wife, giving her soft terms unavailable to ordinary Mexicans.

The contractor, Grupo Higa, and its subsidiaries had won nearly $700 million in bids when Peña Nieto was a state governor from 2005 to 2011.

Since then, Peña Nieto’s wife, Angélica Rivera, has issued a video saying she earned enough as a television star to buy the mansion, an assertion many doubt, and the president’s chief of staff, Aurelio Nuño, said last Friday that the matter was closed.

Peña Nieto’s office has leaned on major newspapers and television networks to keep a lid on news coverage, and legislators have been leery of opening a formal inquiry or looking into the terms of other contracts that Grupo Higa has won.

“No one from the political parties is asking these questions,” said Julio Madrazo, a public policy analyst.

Legislative faction chiefs from all major parties appear to fear that investigating Grupo Higa would only force them into a quagmire in which their own under-the-table enrichment deals might surface.

Mexico has a vast history of governors, legislators and presidents who’ve amassed huge fortunes. Peña Nieto came to office promising that he was different, a stalwart advocate of rule of law and transparency. So far, he hasn’t moved the dial.

This week, however, Transparency International, a global advocacy group, released its annual survey of corruption around the world. The index placed Mexico at No. 103 of the 175 countries listed, far lower than Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile, Latin American nations that compete with Mexico for investment.

But the real test for Peña Nieto’s government will come in early 2015, when it opens its energy sector to foreign investment, breaking seven decades of state control. In what’s known in the energy industry as Round One, Mexico will allow foreign and domestic private oil companies to bid for 169 blocks to explore and produce on land and offshore, tapping a potential gusher of investment.

Already the multiple scandals dogging Peña Nieto have lowered the prices that foreign investors will offer Mexico, Riva Palacio said.

“If in Round One a block was going to cost 5 pesos, with the conflicts of interest and the cronyism of this government an investor will think, ‘I won’t pay 5 pesos. In Round One, I’ll offer 2 pesos,’ ” Riva Palacio said.

Peña Nieto is counting on vigorous investment in order to fulfill his promise to get economic growth up to around 6 percent a year. This year’s growth is projected at a mediocre 2.2 percent, and projections for 2015 stand at 3.5 percent.

Madrazo, the public policy expert, said Peña Nieto still had time to emphasize rule of law and give backbone to a series of 11 major overhauls and reforms that he’d ushered through Congress, but that it would take a feat of courage.

“In order to have legitimacy and promote this route, you have to make people pay costs. There are governors who will have to go to jail. There are mayors who will have to go to jail,” Madrazo said.

Except on a small scale, that’s a change in the way Mexico does business that has yet to occur.