Peña Nieto’s Promises of Change Ring Hollow in the Streets of Mexico

Dec 2, 2012
10:09 pm

On December 1 Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) was inaugurated as Mexico’s 57th president. During the inauguration speech in Mexico City he said the first aim of the new government “is to bring peace to Mexico” and that the country “had lost ground” in the 12 years that his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), had been absent from power.

A quick look at the history of PRI reveals the hypocrisy of these words—PRI ruled Mexico undemocratically for 71 years. The "transition" to democracy took place in 2000 when an opposing party won the national elections for the first time. PRI’s time in power was characterized by corruption, repression, and impunity. During decades of uninterrupted power, PRI became firmly entrenched in all levels of political life in Mexico, making a functioning democracy virtually impossible.

Party politics aside, EPN himself has a tainted record—most notably as the governor of the state of Mexico during the brutal repression of protesters in San Salvador Atenco in 2006. The birth of the #YoSoy132 movement followed a campaign visit by EPN to the Ibero-American University in Mexico City earlier this year.  During the visit students interrupted EPN’s speech to protest his involvement in the atrocity.

EPN won the July national election by securing just 38% of the votes. He assumes power despite major voting day irregularities, claims of vote buying, and media bias in favor of EPN, as well as ongoing protests in key cities across the country.    

The hashtag #PeñaNietoNoEsMiPresidente was trending on Twitter just hours before EPN officially assumed power at the stroke of midnight.  Protests on inauguration day were tamer than those which followed the last election, but thousands of people still turned out to voice their anger at the new president. 

In Mexico City authorities were prepared for battle—the San Lázaro Palace that houses the lower chamber of Congress in particular was like a fortress. Several nearby metro stations were closed all week and 3-meter-tall barricades were erected outside. Inside Congress, opposition members gave protest speeches and hung up a banner that read, “Imposition consummated. Mexico mourns.” 

Outside Congress hundreds of protesters threw Molotov cocktails, firecrackers and rocks at police, managing to breach the steel barricade at one point.  Police responded by spraying tear gas from a truck and using water cannons. Countless images can be found on social media of protesters wearing gas masks and scarves across their faces to block out the acrid tear gas that left a hazy cloud over the parts of the city where it was used.

Both the #YoSoy132 movement and Section 22 of the SNTE teachers union have distanced themselves from any acts of violence, reaffirming their call for peaceful protest. They are reporting infiltration of the movement and suggest that agents provocateurs are responsible for some of the damage seen yesterday. Some protesters were seriously injured, including a 22-year-old protester who lost his right eye after being hit in the face by a projectile.  Many others suffered less serious injuries and 103 were reported arrested. 

In terms of the presidency, Peña Nieto takes over “a seat bathed in blood”, with over 60,000 deaths attributed to the war on drugs that his predecessor Felipe Calderón started in 2006. So which direction will EPN’s presidency take?

While Calderón will be remembered for his militarization of the drug war, EPN looks set to forge ahead and crack open Mexico’s markets even further to outside investors. He spent much of October touring Europe touting for business, and he has controversial plans to open up Mexico’s state-owned oil giant Pemex to private investment. 

Of course the big issue for many Mexicans is security. EPN has said he will break away from the militarized approach of Calderón and will focus on reducing violence, rather than going after drug kingpins and intercepting shipments of drugs. He has not offered any specifics on how he will achieve this, but in terms of the US involvement in the war on drugs, he has said he will continue to work with them but will not allow armed US agents on Mexican soil. 

Overall there may not be much to celebrate in Mexico as “power transitions from one human rights violator to the next.” It will be interesting to see how long and how strong the protest movements remain. If EPN does not break away from the old PRI tactics of corruption and repression, it may be a galvanizing force for the population. As one piece of graffiti in Mexico City read this weekend, “We are not guerrillas, but soon we will be.”



Jen Wilton currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico and reports on social and political issues related to Mexico and Latin America more widely. Jen tweets as @guerillagrrl and blogs at