Mexico is Burning

MEXICO CITY – The last time Mexico experienced a political crisis more serious than the one it is undergoing today was in 1994, when a group of so-called Zapatista guerrillas staged a semi-armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. The president’s handpicked successor was assassinated, and, as if that was not enough, the value of the peso had plummeted by nearly 70%. Today’s crisis is not quite as bad, but it is getting close.

In December 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto took office under inauspicious circumstances. He was elected with just 38% of the vote, without a majority in either house of Congress, and with the opposition in control of Mexico City, the capital. The presidential runner-up, opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, questioned the results of the election.

Peña Nieto faced serious challenges. His Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had governed Mexico for 70 years, until it was swept out of power in 2000. A large majority of Mexican voters continued to suspect it of corruption, authoritarianism, and economic incompetence. Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, had bequeathed him a war on drugs that had already caused more than 60,000 deaths; at least another 22,000 Mexicans were missing.

At first, it looked like Peña Nieto would be able to turn things around. He cut a deal with both opposition parties – the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) – and proceeded to win significant legislative changes. He was hailed as a world-class reformer. The country was living the “Mexican Moment,” as his handlers labeled it, and appeared to be on the verge of fulfilling, at long last, its great promise.