The PRI returns to Mexico: first week in power

On watching Enrique Peña Nieto’s swearing in ceremony last December 1st, one could have been mistaken for thinking that Mexico’s presidential transition was going off without a hitch. Peña Nieto certainly enjoyed a much more civil reception from Mexico’s Congress compared with the cacophony of dissent that characterised his predecessor Felipe Calderon’s inauguration ceremony.

Indeed, the PRI  party managed to sail into the presidency and within a day of taking power had already announced the signing of a major agreement (“Pacto por Mexico”) among the three major political parties (PRI, PAN, PRD). The agreement sets out 95 commitments on a wide ranging set of issues including universal health cover, educational reform, human rights and victims’ reparation, community participation and public security reforms to combat violence, reform of PEMEX to raise productivity, among other issues. So, broadly speaking, it seems that the PRI had come up with a deal that no other party could refuse. This is the PRI, after all – they know how to negotiate and make everyone happy – they did that for 71 years up until 2000, to the point where this period of Mexico’s history was dubbed the “perfect dictatorship” by Nobel author Mario Vargas Llosa.  In 2012, with a harrowing toll of violence that has seen almost 80,000 deaths and 30,000 disappeared in six short years, some analysts have commented that perhaps the public was fed up with what they saw as an inept government and would much prefer to return to the well-oiled machine of the PRI, even if that meant democracy losing out. And that is what happened – after 12 years in power, the PAN party was booted out and the PRI came back in.

Enrique Peña Nieto waltzed into power after a seemingly effortless defeat of a legal challenge to his presidency – in September the electoral tribunal struck down significant evidence by opposition parties that the PRI had used extensive vote-buying tactics, media manipulation and voter coercion. Luckily for Mr. Peña Nieto this evidence did not seem enough for the judges or electoral commissioners to be convinced, who nevertheless later quickly ordered the election ballots to be destroyed in order to avoid any confusion.

So, with dissent having been dealt with, the return to power secured, there was only one thing missing to make this a real PRI entrance – and that was a showdown between police and the public.

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Photo: M. Mora                                                           Photo: D. Jaramillo

The new president’s swearing-in-ceremony was greeted by  initially peaceful demonstrations against what protestors were calling the “imposition” of the PRI. Eyewitness accounts tell how the protest soon became ugly, however, as a number of masked demonstrators in khaki pants, black shirts and gloves started to filter into streets, ready for a fight, fitted with gas masks, burning property and throwing molotov cocktails. It didn’t take long for the violence to escalate and for the riot police to react heavy handedly, at times using excessive force against those caught in the melee and launching tear gas at close range. While some were quick to blame the student movement “Yosoy132” (I am the 132nd) for the violence, this student movement (which had been responsible for questioning the legitimacy of the elections and the manipulation of the media) firmly distanced itself from the violence and was able to link the combative actions to non-associated groups. It is unclear how the violence got so out of hand, however a number of commentators were not ruling out the possibility that violent elements had been deliberately planted in the streets to provoke chaos and thus enable and legitimate a heavy police crackdown. The Reforma newspaper published interviews on the following Monday reporting that some participants had been paid 300 pesos each to deliberately stir up violence on the streets.

It is difficult to assess these confusing narratives, however this sort of tactic is seen as an eery throwback to some of the PRI clashes with students in the 1960s and 70s and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a PRI government has been associated with repressive responses to civil unrest (take the 2006 Atenco operation under Enrique Pena Nieto’s own government in the State of Mexico as an example, or Ulises Ruiz’s government in the state of Oaxaca in the same year). Certainly the PRI has shown itself skilfull at breaking the will of social movements that dissent against it. Whatever the assessment of the PRI’s return to power, one cannot help notice that in comparison to the 2006 elections which were much more polemical, with only 0.56% separating the two candidates and half a million people camping out in the streets in protest, this last week in Mexico City has seen more violent confrontations. Outgoing Mayor of Mexico City Marcelo Ebrard spoke furiously to the media about the violence on Mexico City’s streets – he mentioned that Mexico City was usually a sphere of peace within the country, and how could these violent clashes take place? Some will argue that these responses are linked with the PRI and its ways. Six years ago there were 400,00 people camping out in the streets in protest against Calderon’s presidency, but not one window was broken or property was burned.

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Photos: M. Mora

On Dec 1 and 2 initially over 100 people were detained by police during the protests .  A number of these detainees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and picked up off the street. The final number then went down to 70 detainees, and 56 were just released yesterday. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have expressed their concern about the actions of law enforcement authorities surrounding these street protests, and have called for full investigations.

Week 2 of the PRI’s return to power and new educational reforms are on the agenda. There are a number of issues hanging in the balance and Mexico has a lot of challenges ahead in order to realise its full potential. Time to watch and see.

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