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Protesters stand next to six mock coffins, representing those who died in a police attack in Guerrero state, as they demonstrate outside the National Palace in Mexico City, Nov. 1, 2014 (AP photo by Marco Ugarte).

Atrocities in Mexico Dim the Promise of Pena Nieto’s Reforms

Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014

Forty-three students are still missing in Mexico. That crisis has gripped the country since September, but it’s easy to forget that it followed another atrocity: the suspected killing of 22 gang members, execution-style, in late June by soldiers in a dingy warehouse outside San Pedro Limon, a small town south of Mexico City. The story of what happened in that warehouse shifted more than once, from a shootout to allegations of a massacre and the government’s promise of an investigation. Charges were filed; then Mexican authorities said they weren’t.

But earlier this week, three Mexican soldiers were formally charged with aggravated homicide in a civilian court over the deaths of eight people. Seven soldiers in all were charged with “actions improper to the public service.” That a civilian judge issued the charges seems like a positive sign. As I wrote last month, “the case could, in its best-case scenario, determine how much the judiciary can in fact assert itself over the military in Mexico.”

Such military abuses are supposed to be tried in civilian courts, according to a 2013 Mexican Supreme Court ruling, but critics say that shift has been slow, and the military still acts with impunity. But even with the charges, the story isn’t over. A lieutenant who authorities had said was under investigation wasn’t named in court. And Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, which has said that soldiers executed at least 15 of the 22 people killed in the warehouse, issued a report on Oct. 21 alleging an attempted cover-up by military and civilian authorities.

“If reports that military officials sought to cover up what happened are true, then that will only increase the pressure for greater civilian oversight of the military justice process—and for greater capacity to try soldiers in civilian courts,” says Hal Brands, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy who studies Mexican security.

Brands told World Politics Review in October that “some of the problems with accountability and impunity are so entrenched that I am not sure that any single incident can end them.”

President Enrique Pena Nieto’s op-ed in the Financial Times proclaiming that “Mexico’s reform agenda is now complete” looks worse by the day. While his plan to attract investment in Mexico by privatizing the energy industry and spurring competition in the telecommunications market was celebrated abroad, it left longstanding issues with security, accountability and the rule of law unresolved. The deaths and kidnapping of the students in Iguala put that into terrible relief. Pena Nieto speaks of “Mexico’s moment,” but as Ioan Grillo wrote in The New York Times last month, “Can it really be Mexico’s moment with such barbaric crimes against young people taking place?”

Writing from Mexico City for The New Yorker, Francisco Goldman captured the mood there, in which Pena Nieto’s promise of reform has met the macabre daily updates in newspapers of how many days the 43 students have been missing. “As one friend put it,” Goldman wrote, “the government’s cardboard theatre has fallen away, exposing Mexico’s horrifying truths.”

Even Pena Nieto’s education reform, which launched his promised “Pact for Mexico,” is sputtering. Many teachers in impoverished, southern states like Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero—where the students went missing—are opposed to what they see as largely cosmetic changes, and to any attempt to break the powerful hold of the teachers’ union. As Nathaniel Parish Flannery reported for World Politics Review last month:

The long-term success of Pena Nieto’s first, somewhat overshadowed reform—education—will define how far his broader economic agenda goes. “The government is going to prioritize the energy reform and the telecom reform,” says Rodrigo Aguilera, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Mexico analyst, “but if they come at the expense of education reform, it would be quite a setback” for Mexico.

Meanwhile, Pena Nieto has already scaled back some of his security pledges, including plans for a military-style Gendarmeria. During the 2012 presidential campaign, he had promised a 40,000-strong independent force. But it was reduced to 5,000, folded into the Federal Police—Mexico’s existing national police force—and left with a vague role. As Flannery wrote for World Politics Review in August, the Gendarmeria wouldn’t solve much.

It might help the national police, he added, “but it needs to be supplemented by continued investment in enhancing local police forces. Even if the Gendarmeria partially displaces Mexico’s armed forces in some areas, it won’t become a substitute for effective local police patrols.”

Of course, the police are another problem, as many are seen as working in league with drug cartels, and several local police are suspected of killing and kidnapping the students in Iguala.

These horrors, along with the military killings, have turned attention away from Mexico’s self-defense groups, which became a familiar media story last year. But in many ways, they are related. Whether it’s soldiers or police acting with impunity or militias taking security into their own hands, Mexico’s problem with violence is fundamentally political.

After all, as Jerónimo Mohar wrote in his feature for World Politics Review last month on self-defense groups in Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Nigeria, “When the state does not have a thorough monopoly on violence—whether through incompetence or by design—it risks spiraling into a situation where violence supplants the rule of law.”

Frederick Deknatel is an associate editor at World Politics Review.