Mexico Presidential Inaguration: New President Takes Office In Shadow of Drug War

On Saturday, Mexico City is hosting the inauguration of incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto.

The inaugural festivities, which in the past turned the federal district into something akin to a giant block party, are expected to be significantly more subdued, with little public fanfare despite the telenovela-esque glamour factor of Mexico’s newest first couple. There are several reasons for the lack of pomp and circumstance.

Peña Nieto’s ascension represents a return of Mexico’s infamous Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the presidency. The PRI, which held a monopoly on presidential power from 1929–2000, faces a significant challenge in proving to the public that it is not longer the party of repressive governance and corruption. Inaugural party planners are also likely reticent to go the way of galas and grandstands because they are acutely aware that Peña Nieto’s win in July was hardly a landside victory. Mexico’s President-elect had the dubious honor of winning the presidency with an estimated 37% of the vote, with ballots divided among three fairly unpopular candidates. His win has since been tarnished by allegations of fraud and heavily contested by political rivals and student activists alike. However, and most importantly, the current transition in politics remains eclipsed by public concern for the drug war, which is viewed to be outside the control of any administration, regardless of political affiliation.

Departing Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s legacy will forever be defined by the military campaign he mounted against Mexican drug trafficking organizations and the estimated 60,000 individuals who died due to cartel violence during his six years in office. In an effort to distinguish himself from his outgoing predecessor, Peña Nieto has tried to emphasize how renewed economic prosperity and optimism will be the cornerstones of his presidency. Unfortunately, his words lack the traction that continues to be afforded to grislier storylines. Indeed, Peña Nieto's visit this week with U.S. President Barack Obama to talk about strong democratic institutions and investment opportunities was overshadowed in the press by the latest U.S. State Department warning reminding travelers of the significant dangers that remain in Mexico.

As president, Peña Nieto has promised to work towards a resolution of the drug war and related violence, a complex security equation that has been floundering without domestic support. What specific actions Mexico's president-elect will take to achieve his goals remains unclear. His generous rhetoric promising an end to corruption, rooting out organized crime, and curbing Mexico’s homicide rate has momentarily distracted the detail-hungry punditry but it should be noted that none of these agenda items has a simple, or short-term, solution. It should also be acknowledged that he seems to be moving away from Calderon’s aggressive stance of dismantling the drug cartels, seeking instead merely to mitigate their affect on the country.

Part of Peña Nieto’s presidential security program involves reorganizing Mexico’s agencies responsible for public security, including demobilizing certain police ranks known to be in collusion with organized crime. However, certain experts are already wondering if eliminating the federal police, admittedly an organization with significant challenges, will undo solid progress achieved through close tutelage and cooperation with U.S. law enforcement. In the same vein, Peña Nieto has yet to announce how he plans to manage the very necessary effort of judicial reform or ensuring economic opportunity and education are available to under-served populations. Mexico’s inability to educate or employ at-risk youth provides the cartels will an endless source of foot soldiers on one end and the lack of judicial resources to effectively prosecute offenders allows for unfettered operational growth on the other.

In truth, critics are right to be skeptical. As a candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto failed to back his platform with substantive policy issues, seemingly relying on his good looks, charm, and powerful PRI connections to carry him through the election. And while his pretty-boy appeal, exponentially magnified for the public by the looks and charm of his well-known television star wife, has carried him thus far, it does not prove he has the metal to take on the challenges ahead with anything other than an excellent wardrobe. Indeed, the somber nature of his inaugural weekend could also be an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that, for the next six years, the seemingly endless and insurmountable problem of Mexico’s security situation has just become Peña Nieto’s burden and he has no idea where to start taking action.

For their part, the criminals momentairly seem to be scaling back the recent levels of bloody violence. It is possible that everyone is taking a much-needed break now that Calderon has stepped off the battlefield. Also possible is that Calderon’s declarations of significant progress towards an improved security situation are more than a mere justification for the death toll during his administration. Just as likely, however, the criminals are waiting to see if Peña Nieto has anything up his sleeve other than fancy cufflinks.