Mexico can withstand two volcanoes

Mexico is embroiled in a crisis of violence, impunity and corruption. And the worst part is the dreadful suspicion that this is just the way things are; that nothing will be done to fix things. Nothing.

Most Mexicans believe that there will be no justice after the massacre of 43 college students in the state Guerrero. And there are the deep doubts that a thorough investigation will be launched into how President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife financed a house allegedly valued at $7 million, as was recently reported by a Mexican journalist. Despite public outrage, many people have just resigned themselves to the belief that Mexico’s state of affairs will continue unchanged. After all, it has happened many times before. Nobody paid for the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City, for example. And these days, no one officially questions how Mexican presidents become millionaires while in office.

In times like these, I sorely miss the wisdom of the late Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, who died in 2012. Whenever Mexico was in crisis, I would go to Fuentes’ home so he could illuminate matters a bit. During a particular visit, we were discussing Mexico’s current affairs and he pointed out that the nation has a remarkable capacity to endure tragedy and abuse.

“México aguanta dos volcanes,” Fuentes reminded me, which translates to “Mexico can withstand two volcanoes.” He was alluding to the volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, which both guard and threaten Mexico City. His words resonate these days as Peña Nieto’s Mexico increasingly becomes a paradise for criminals, and many reported crimes go unpunished simply because the justice system cannot be trusted.

In Guerrero, the latest information with regard to the missing students is that corrupt authorities, working with a drug gang, allegedly kidnapped and killed the college students, burned their bodies, then disposed of their remains in a river. This horrible massacre is hard to fathom. And it’s harder not blame the failed antiviolence strategy of Peña Nieto.

“Of course it was a state crime!” José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch in the Americas, told me in a recent interview. Police agents, members of the military and politicians were reportedly involved. And Peña Nieto, in a shocking display of feebleness, hid at first, then acted as though he had no reason to assume any responsibility for such a horrendous act. This is why there is a growing clamor, both on the streets and in social media, for his resignation.

Additionally, the Peña Nieto family’s luxury “white house” has come under scrutiny recently. Carmen Aristegui, a Mexican journalist, and her team recently reported (bravely and accurately, I might add) on how a corporation that was awarded government contracts — including a winning bid for the construction of a high-speed train, which has now been rescinded — owns the house that Angelica Rivera, Peña Nieto’s wife, is paying for in installments.

Have Peña Nieto and his family enjoyed economic gains from his being in office? How much is Rivera really paying for that expensive new home? Peña Nieto’s administration has rejected the accusation that this is a conflict of interest, but what would happen in the United States if, say, a corporation that won contracts from the government secretly financed a private home for first lady Michelle Obama? I’m certain that there would be a very intense outcry. Congressional hearings would certainly follow, and President Obama himself would run the risk of losing his job.

In two separate interviews before his presidential election in 2012, I pointed out to Peña Nieto that many of Mexico’s former presidents somehow ended up becoming millionaires during their tenures. I asked him how much money he had, and whether he himself was a millionaire. “I am not,” he told me (the interviews, from 2009 and 2011, can be seen here).

Now, as president, he must prove to the public that his family hasn’t got rich unjustifiably. If you add up all the paychecks that Peña Nieto has earned while working as a government official, he wouldn’t have enough money to pay for that home, located in an exclusive neighborhood in Mexico City, on his own (Of course, payments on the home are technically being made by his wife, a former soap-opera star, although we have not learned how much was actually paid for the house).

Despite these troubles, I refuse to believe that Mexicans have fallen into a state of hopelessness. I want to believe that, after so many abuses, they have become tired of withstanding tragedy and have gathered the will to fight back. The coming days will be key. If Mexico allows this moment to pass, the nation will be doomed to the status quo.

While I deeply admire and respect him, I hope that this time Carlos Fuentes is proven wrong.

A timely P.S.: While he was campaigning, President Obama made promises to Hispanic voters with regard to immigration reform. And the time has finally time for him to deliver. Despite Republican threats, he should go forward with an executive order on immigration. In the past, the Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to this country by their parents, have encouraged Obama to be bold and save millions of immigrants from deportation. Yet Obama runs a real risk of displeasing everybody: He will irritate the Republicans by acting at all, and he could irritate the Hispanic community by not being bold enough.

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