Mexico_s leadership crisis From bad to worse

That was days before the attorney-general on November 7th laid out in grim detail how narco-gangsters in league with police had apparently killed the young student teachers in the southwestern state of Guerrero, incinerated them on a rubbish tip and tossed their bones into a river.

Since then the bad news has mounted. On the night of November 8th demonstrators set ablaze the wooden door of the National Palace in Mexico City, taking to a new level a pattern of arson that has accompanied mass protests since the students went missing. The image of hooligans hurling Molotov cocktails at the president_s ceremonial seat of power without anyone trying to stop them struck many Mexicans as symbolic of a government that is passive in the face of crisis.The next morning, just after Mr Pe__a flew to China for a summit and a state visit, a scandal erupted. A Mexican news outlet, Aristegui Noticias, revealed that the sumptuous $7m home that the president shares with his family belongs to a businessman who is linked to a controversial $3.75 billion railway construction project. This will complicate Mr Pe__a_s efforts to convince Mexicans that he is capable of enforcing the rule of law, not just in the badlands of Guerrero but at the centre of the political establishment.

The president_s wife, Ang__lica Rivera, a former telenovela star, is buying the house on credit from Ingenier__a Immobiliaria del Centro, whose owner is the boss of Grupo Higa. A Grupo Higa construction firm was part of a China-led consortium that had won the railway contract without facing rival bidders. Mr Pe__a abruptly cancelled the contract on November 6th.

He denies wrongdoing, and his spokesman points out that Ms Rivera is paying off the loan on the house out of her own pocket. But the revelation has added to the public_s disenchantment. Eduardo Boh__rquez of Transparencia Mexicana, an NGO, says it shows why Mexican politicians should be forced to declare their financial interests and their families_ assets. _This is a big hole in our legislation,_ he says.

The cancellation of the high-speed rail contract overshadowed the visit to China. Mr Pe__a, who has sought to attract foreign investment through an ambitious set of energy reforms and has assiduously courted President Xi Jinping, arrived to snarling headlines. China Railway Construction Corp, which led the Mexico consortium, was _extremely shocked_, according to Xinhua, China_s state news agency. _The Mexican side bears the whole responsibility for scrapping the deal. It has nothing to do with our company,_ it huffed.

On returning home, Mr Pe__a will struggle to move Mexicans beyond their sense of national trauma and rebuild his credibility abroad. Though his attorney-general described the students_ fate in convincing detail, their families have refused to accept the government_s verdict that they are dead and have accused Mr Pe__a of putting Asian summitry above their own needs. Violent protests have continued.

In response to the crisis, Mr Pe__a has pledged to launch a pact for law and order involving all political parties, something that has been tried before with little success. It will be credible only if it extends to the highest level of political power, and tackles the corruption, impunity, conflicts of interest and influence-peddling that appear to flourish across the political spectrum. _I wouldn_t want to bet on which political party is more corrupt than the others,_ says Mar__a Amparo Casar of CIDE, a Mexico City think-tank.

The president_s popularity among Mexicans was already low by historical standards before the crisis. It is likely to suffer more, not least because the economic recovery is still anaemic and consumer confidence has been especially weak. To regain momentum, analysts say, he urgently needs to implement his reform of industries like oil and gas so that private investment pours in, accelerating economic growth in years to come (see article).

But economic reform alone won_t be enough, businessmen say, if criminality scares investors away from bidding for big contracts and smaller firms continue to have to pay extortion money to gangs and corrupt public servants. For almost two years, Mr Pe__a has been able to divert attention away from that reality through an eye-catching legislative agenda. He no longer has that luxury.

the Economist |

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