Enrique is so handsome that women scream when he is on stage. At his appearances, vendors offer Ken-style dolls in his image. But his wife, Angélica Rivera, follows him everywhere. She is better known as ‘Gaviota’ (seagull), a renowned and glamorous telenovela actress, who posts daily videos on YouTube which are viewed by thousands of followers who can witness their first morning kiss; the sweet words they exchange on their daily trips; and all their daily activities until they sit down to dinner with their six children at home.
This is neither a reality show nor a telenovela. Enrique Peña Nieto is the front-runner in Mexico’s presidential elections and the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party that ruled Mexico for 70 years until 2000. He is the former governor of Estado de México, a state which neighbors Mexico City, and is a descendant of five former governors. His family has ruled Mexico’s most populous state for 27 years.
Peña Nieto was born in Atlacomulco, a small town that has also been the birthplace of some of the most corrupt politicians in Mexico. Because of that, the city is commonly referred as ‘Atracomulco’ (a play on the word ‘atraco’ which means robbery). Among the most infamous governors born there was Peña’s uncle: Arturo Montiel, accused by members of his own party of corruption and embezzlement to the tune of millions of dollars in 2005. Peña was also Montiel’s successor in the governor’s mansion of Estado de México and managed to close the investigation in order to absolve his uncle. A Wikileaks cable revealed that Peña Nieto’s godfather is the former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the most hated president by Mexicans after provoking the worst economic collapse in 1994.
Under Peña’s mandate, Estado the México led the nation in the number of kidnappings, car robberies, and unpunished murders of women. However, Peña Nieto was scandal-free as governor until his former wife died in 2007 under suspicious circumstances. He recently admitted in an interview that he had been unfaithful several times and that while married, he fathered two children with another woman. But mainstream media in Mexico have been very quiet on all those issues, and that is not surprising. Since the PRI era, the largest Mexican media conglomerate gives favorable news coverage to a Presidential candidate in order to secure entry barriers to any potential TV competitor. It is a gentlemen’s agreement that started in 2008 when Peña hired Televisa’s leading actress to promote his political image and achievements. He ended falling in love with ‘Gaviota’ while becoming a top spender on TV ads.
Since then, Peña paved his way to become the front-runner in the Mexican presidential campaign and not only female voters support this good-looking politician. I just learned that my uncle, the owner of a small business, is one of his new converts, even though he has never voted for PRI before. My uncle used to be a supporter of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). But he, along with millions of middle class Mexicans, are disappointed in PAN after current president Felipe Calderón sharply raised taxes in 2010. In addition, my uncle’s business has been targeted by criminals for extortion and robbery, something he never faced before.
Most people in Mexico blame the increasing insecurity on President Calderón’s national security strategy, because he has publicly stood firm on the war on drugs. However, the majority of states affected by organized crime are ruled by PRI governors. Even though people have not forgotten the corruption that characterized previous PRI governments, many citizens may prefer corruption to the rampant increase in violence.
The worst abuses of previous PRI governments still live in Mexicans’ memory. The PRI and especially the so-called Grupo Atlacomulco represent gangster-style politics, but at least it solved problems in a ‘Machiavellian way’. The PRI has never been defined as a leftist or rightist party because it can bring together Mexico’s business elite along with union leaders. During all the decades of PRI rule, “narco” organizations operated and grew quietly under the shadow of corrupt police forces, while peacefully co-existing with civilians. The narcos did not mess with regular citizens or law-abiding businesses. Drug lords practiced “ajustes de cuentas” or grudge fights, but they never attacked innocent people other than narcos’ wives or children.
In addition, Peña faces two weak rivals. The first female presidential candidate from PAN, Josefina Vázquez Mota, represents a prolongation of Calderón’s policies: high taxes and the continuation of the war on drugs. The leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a.k.a. “Peje”, lost credibility when he used radical tactics to claim himself as the winner of the 2006 Presidential election, confirming voters’ fears that he was the Mexican version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
In 2000, the opposition won the first presidential election because many young voters (including myself) saw Vicente Fox as the candidate who could beat the PRI. The international community praised Mexico for its peaceful transition to democracy in 2000. But after 12 years of a lame economy and escalating violence, many Mexicans have reached the conclusion that even with corruption and authoritarian tactics, “PRI wasn’t that bad at all”.