Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, is very frustrated these days. The public is refusing to acknowledge, much less applaud, any of his accomplishments. For instance, authorities in Italy and Guatemala recently arrested two former Mexican state governors who went on the run after being accused of widespread corruption. Peña Nieto took credit for their capture, yet Mexicans welcomed the news with suspicion, criticism and memes on social media.
Annoyed, Peña Nieto shot back at his cynical constituents, insisting to reporters that “there’s no way to please them.” He’s damned if he captures these fugitives and damned if he doesn’t, he complained.
The capture of Tomas Yarrington, of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, and Javier Duarte, from the state of Veracruz, was indeed good news. These former officials are accused of stealing millions of dollars and face several counts of corruption.
But credit for their apprehension should go not to the Peña Nieto administration but rather to the governments of Italy and Guatemala, where Yarrington and Duarte were caught, respectively.
Besides, Peña Nieto could have had Duarte arrested last year before he fled, but the president didn’t even try. The charges leveled against Duarte extend back to 2010, when a lengthy file was created on him — so what was Peña Nieto waiting for? This is one reason why people in Mexico are suspicious and have resorted to cynicism and mockery.
Another reason has to do with a picture from 2012 making the rounds on social media. It shows Peña Nieto and Duarte, both members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, embracing, laughing and seemingly having the time of their lives. Duarte openly supported Peña Nieto’s presidential bid in 2012, and the president reciprocated by praising Duarte on television, saying that the governor was a member of a promising new generation of Mexican politicians. In other words, they were buddies—or that’s what it looks like.
People are also not happy with the Peña Nieto administration because the scope of the crimes allegedly committed by Duarte is so large, which suggests either complicity or utter incompetence on the part of the government. Miguel Angel Yunes, the current governor of Veracruz, did the math and told me in a recent interview that Duarte, during his time in office between 2010 and last year, allegedly diverted about $2.5 billion in federal funds andanother roughly $1 billion in state funds.
How does one steal $3.5 billion without officials noticing? Peña Nieto’s government was presumably sending taxpayer funds to Veracruz for health care, education and public safety. And Peña Nieto never thought to ask Duarte, “Hey, how did you spend the money I sent you?”
Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is the same president who claimed that the arrests of Yarrington and Duarte were evidence of his commitment to fighting corruption. This is also the president who assigned one of his subordinates, Virgilio Andrade, to investigate the first lady’s purchase of a luxury home from a government contractor a couple of years ago. Of course, both Peña Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera, were quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, which is to be expected when the person investigating you also depends on you for his livelihood. Situations like these are the reasons that nobody applauds this president.
Before leaving office in 1982, President José López Portillo built a horrendous five-mansion estate in Mexico City known as Dog Hill. Of course, the cost of the sprawling property famously exceeded Portillo’s combined earnings after a lifetime of civil service. After that, I thought that the magnitude of such corruption would never be seen again in Mexico. But I was wrong: Hundreds of Dog Hills could be built with all the money that Duarte and other former officials are alleged to have stolen.
The impact of such impunity could have wide-ranging consequences in Mexico. In fact, we could see successful anti-establishment votes in next year’s presidential election, just as we’ve seen in the U.S., the U.K., the Philippines and Colombia.
So how do you steal $3.5 billion in Mexico? Easy: Just do it under the half-open eyes of the Peña Nieto administration.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a news anchor on Univision and the host of “America With Jorge Ramos” on Fusion. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of several best-selling books. His latest is “Take a Stand: Lessons From Rebels.”