Enrique Pena Nieto

Mexico’s president set to give annual State of the Nation

When President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers his annual report to congress, he’ll reflect on a year that has seen rising homicide rates, a sluggish economy and a midterm electoral rout of his party.

His administration has also been stung by a string of scandals as well as reports of alleged torture and human rights abuses by police and troops. And protests by dissident teachers continue to challenge the educational reforms he claims as a major achievement nearly two-thirds of the way through his presidency.

“It’s been a very tough year for the administration,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Mexico and Latin America analyst at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations. “And I think he’s looking now toward the end of his term and to the choosing of the next potential candidate within (his party) and his own sort of lame-duck status. So it’s not an easy speech to give.”

Pena Nieto’s office did not respond to questions emailed by The Associated Press. He is expected to send the written report to Congress on Thursday and speak on Friday.

His report threatened to be overshadowed by Donald Trump’s surprise visit Wednesday to Mexico City, where the Republican candidate and Pena Nieto met privately and later spoke to reporters.

Trump has been widely criticized in Mexico for his promises to build a border wall and for his characterizations of immigrants as rapists bringing drugs and crime to the U.S., and Pena Nieto’s appearance was widely panned by Mexicans disappointed that he didn’t demand an apology.

Trump “came for a photo-op and Enrique Pena Nieto allowed himself to be used to benefit (Trump’s) campaign,” columnist Jorge Zepeda said.

A survey published Aug. 11 by the newspaper Reforma put Pena Nieto’s approval rating at 23 percent, the lowest for any Mexican president since the paper began conducting the poll 21 years ago. Seventy-four percent of respondents disapproved of his handling of the country. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Insecurity is a top concern for many Mexicans. Homicide rates dropped during the early part of Pena Nieto’s administration, which began in late 2012 and runs through 2018, but killings are up 16 percent over the first five months of this year from the same period in 2015.

“It’s getting worse … and authorities don’t do anything,” said Alejandro Sanchez, 62, who runs a newsstand in central Mexico City.

Sanchez said he lives in the industrial and residential suburb of Naucalpan, northwest of the capital, and two friends there have had to close their businesses due to extortion threats from gangs.

“Besides the extortions there are robberies, there are always robberies, and even more in the neighborhoods,” he said.

Many complain about rising prices and a lack of employment opportunities amid a slowed economy.

“I’m lucky to have a good job and everything, but I feel like other young people need more help and things like that,” said Angel Diaz Gonzalez, a 22-year-old graphic designer for a telemarketing firm.

Low prices for oil, a pillar of Mexico’s economy, and other external factors the government has little or no control over, have the country feeling the pinch. This month the Treasury Department lowered its GDP growth forecast for 2016 yet again, to between 2 percent and 2.6 percent.

Sagging oil prices have also dampened the rollout of Pena Nieto’s much-touted opening of the energy sector to private companies, although experts say it will likely reap rewards over the long term.

Analysts also credit Mexico with a conservative hedging policy that has limited its vulnerability to oil market volatility and has helped keep the economy growing even as other commodities-dependent Latin American nations have been hit much harder.

But it’s been mostly bad news for the administration.

This month an investigation by Aristegui Noticias alleged that large parts of Pena Nieto’s law thesis from 25 years ago were copied from other sources without citation, something the university in question later corroborated. The revelation followed embarrassing reports in 2014 and 2015 linking the president, his wife and associates to questionable real estate deals involving government contractors.

Congress approved anti-corruption legislation last month, though it remains to be seen how it may be applied and opinions vary as to whether it passed because of or in spite of Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

“In many ways corruption has dominated politics and the public agenda over the past year. Partially because of the many scandals, partially because of the debate in Congress,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexico City-based analyst. “In some ways it has become the dominant narrative of the current administration, whether they like it or not. … It’s certainly not the legacy that they hope for, but that’s probably what is going to happen.”

Buffeted by popular discontent, in June the PRI won just five of 12 governorships at stake in mid-term elections – including some in states where it had never lost since the party’s founding nearly nine decades ago.

Also this year an independent group of experts released a scathing report discrediting government investigators’ official account of what happened to 43 students who were abducted by police in Guerrero state in 2014 and have not been heard from since.

Several videos showing police and soldiers torturing detained suspects have surfaced, shining an uncomfortable spotlight on the behavior of security forces prosecuting the war against drug cartels.

And earlier this month, the National Human Rights Commission determined that 22 of 42 drug gang suspects killed during a raid at a ranch last year were “arbitrarily executed” by police, who then planted guns on some of them to make it look like they had died in the shootout.

Mexico’s national security commissioner denied the accusations in the report, but on Monday the head of federal police was replaced in what analysts called tacit acknowledgement there were too many controversies surrounding his force.

The government points to the arrest or killing of about 100 high-value drug cartel targets as successes in its offensive against the gangs. But even the recapture in January of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was somewhat diminished by the fact that his most-recent prison escape came during Pena Nieto’s watch.

On the positive side, O’Neil said, Mexico continues to see high levels of foreign investment, is generally perceived as a stable place to do business and has found significant interest in deep-water oil contracts coming up for bid later this year.

She noted Pena Nieto won’t have the stage all to himself much longer with the 2018 presidential campaign ramping up by this time next year.

“In many ways this speech is probably the last that Pena gives as the sort of undisputed head of the PRI and the country,” O’Neil said. “So this is his moment to put forward a vision … and I think his challenge is that most of Mexico’s population just won’t believe him.”

Puerto Vallarta News

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