His palace on fire, the streets of his capital teeming with angry demonstrators, his government engulfed in its most serious crisis to date, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto did what many a beleaguered chief executive might want to do.
He left the country.
Peña Nieto “absolutely” had to fly to China for a trade mission, presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez said Monday when a normally friendly TV interviewer asked if it weren’t a bad time to be away.
The telegenic and commanding president, who has studiously crafted an image as a “reformer,” has won praise from the international community for opening Mexico’s oil sector to foreign exploration and production, overhauling the country’s public education system and capturing several major drug cartel leaders.
But the 48-year-old leader has been broadsided over the last several weeks by a parade of events that raise questions about whether his 2-year-old administration can maintain the momentum needed to carry on his reform agenda and — amid recent reports of a gleaming new house built for the president by a well-connected contractor —battle Mexico’s pervasive corruption.
Peña Nieto left for China over the weekend as demonstrators were setting fire to the door of the National Palace in Mexico City, protesting the apparent massacre of 43 students after their detention by government forces in the southern state of Guerrero. At the same time, reports were surfacing that a $7-million mansion owned by the president’s wife had been provided by a leading government contractor.
The turmoil has left Peña Nieto struggling to regain his footing.
Although most analysts agree that the crisis is unlikely to seriously threaten the leader of a country accustomed to challenges including assassination attempts and armed rebellions, it could hobble Peña Nieto in his greater ambition: to reform the Mexican economy and bring new foreign investment into the country’s crucial energy sector.
Increasingly, Peña Nieto is being seen as a leader who bobbles when things go wrong.
The president’s plans this week include attending the XXII summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders in Beijing and then the annual Group of 20 major economies summit, which this year is in Brisbane, Australia. The stay in China will include a state visit and discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping; China is Mexico’s second-largest trading partner and both countries are looking to expand the relationship.
“The world’s principal economic leaders will be there,” Sanchez said. “Mexico cannot afford to miss this opportunity.”
Critics, however, say the president’s departure at such a volatile moment, highlighted by weekend protests over the 43 college students, is just the latest in a pileup of tone-deaf mistakes and bungled crisis management by a president and administration normally known for their discipline in sticking to well-choreographed scripts.
“The government has not understood that it faces an extraordinary historic crisis,” columnist Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez wrote Monday. “The president, a disciplined man who has rigorously followed a program he outlined, has suddenly been left with nothing to say, without a response to the emergency.”
Authorities have come under attack from the public and especially from frustrated parents and supporters of the students taken away Sept. 26 by local police in the Guerrero city of Iguala, reportedly acting on the mayor’s orders.
It took nearly six weeks for investigators to find what they believe to be the students’ remains, and for Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam to reveal — in grisly detail Friday — what apparently happened to the students, who authorities believe were killed, their bodies chopped up, burned and tossed in a river.
This would be one of the deadliest massacres in recent Mexican history, one that hits especially hard because the victims were impoverished sons of campesinos availing themselves of one of the legacies of the Mexican Revolution, a free if flawed college education expressly for them.
Federal authorities were slow to view the case with sufficient gravity, critics say, to step in with the full force of the law and to issue arrest warrants for prime suspects, such as Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who managed to elude arrest for more than a month.
Peña Nieto’s meetings with parents have been viewed as too little too late. One backfired, when the parents refused to leave his headquarters until he signed their manifesto.
Another misstep: Murillo Karam, seeking to end the difficult Friday news conference and tough questioning from reporters, made an offhand remark: “Ya me canse.” (Enough, I’m tired.)
The phrase seemed callous to many and quickly went viral, becoming a rallying cry for increasingly angry protests that have been held almost every day throughout Mexico.
In Guerrero, a handful of violent elements torched government buildings; in Mexico City on Saturday, after an otherwise peaceful, massive march, a group used metal barriers to attempt to crash through the ornate wooden doors of the downtown National Palace. Unsuccessful, they doused the door panels with gasoline and set them on fire. Eighteen people were arrested.
On Saturday night, Peña Nieto was leaving for China with his actress wife, Angelica Rivera. On Sunday, an explosive news report published by a Mexican website run by journalist Carmen Aristegui suggested the president was guilty of a serious conflict of interest.
A white-marble mansion was ostensibly owned by Rivera but provided by a company that had benefited over the years from hundreds of millions of dollars in public-works contracts under Peña Nieto’s state and federal stewardships, the investigation said.
Sanchez, the presidential spokesman, denied any wrongdoing and said Rivera and Peña Nieto’s assets were separate. He said a Times report was incorrect in suggesting that the impending Aristegui revelations had anything to do with the cancellation late Thursday of a $4-billion bullet-train contract with the parent company of the same firm holding the mansion.
At the time, the government said the contract, won by a consortium of Chinese and Mexican companies, was yanked because of public “doubts and concerns” over the propriety of the bidding process. Sanchez said the government was unaware of the impending Aristegui report, although she has said her team sought government comment.
The reports on the mansion have made only a moderate splash in the country. Many Mexicans are inured to allegations of corruption, seeing it as part of their daily lives.
In the latest headache for the government, demonstrators Monday surrounded the airport in Acapulco, the most famous city in Guerrero, the state where the students were attacked, and a crown jewel of the Mexican tourism industry. They said they would block tourists and other passengers from entering or leaving the building for several hours. It was unclear whether flights were able to continue normally.
Earlier, the president underscored his responsibility to fulfill international duties, even when it meant leaving Mexico at this time of trouble. At a refueling layover in Anchorage, Peña Nieto described the summits as two of the most important venues of the year for Mexico’s efforts to expand its economy.
“Not to have gone,” he said, “would have been irresponsible.”
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.