Win McNamee

The first time Enrique Peña Nieto visited Obama in Washington D.C. it was as Mexico's president-elect, and he was portrayed as the leader of a new political class. Mexico, many thought, was a nation moving forward.

What a difference two years make. The young and promising Mexican president is now facing harsh criticism and disappointment over human-rights concerns— a sentiment that was voiced by a group of protesters gathered on the snow-covered streets outside the White House with placards and bullhorns.

But inside the White House, next to the fireplace, Peña Nieto and Obama failed to fully acknowledge the elephant in the room.

Obama said the U.S. had followed the tragic events closely but instead of focusing the talks on the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students and Mexico's worsening citizen-security problem — the main issues that most Mexicans are concerned about — the two presidents spent the bulk of their time talking commerce, legislation and international issues, in addition to a lengthy exchange of social niceties.

While Obama said the two talked security reforms in private and that his administration will support these, Peña Nieto merely addressed concerns in an op-ed published today in Politico.

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“The tragic and despicable events that took place last September in Guerrero have been met by my government with decisive action: Over 70 individuals, including the masterminds, are already being prosecuted, and I will continue to stress that there is no room for impunity,” the Mexican president wrote.

This raises a few questions. How can the president combat impunity in Mexico while dodging responsibility in a housing scandal involving the first lady and his finance minister? More importantly, how can Peña Nieto rebuild rule of law in Mexico without addressing full on the disappearance of 43 students, problems of transparency and other human-rights abuses?

This is the elephant in the room — and it's making a mess.

When it comes to the war against organized crime and cartels, politicians on both sides of the Rio Grande play the blame game. But no one is owning up to any responsibility. In the case of the missing students, no member of Peña Nieto's cabinet has stepped down after three months of scandal and public outrage.

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Washington should also do more. The U.S. government is reluctant to exert any pressure — at least publicly — on Mexico. It's also loath to modify its failed drug-war policy, which is efficient at nabbing top drug lords but not at saving lives south of the border or reducing drug consumption at home.

The next time the presidents are at a loss for what to talk about, they should take their cues from the voices outside the room — perhaps those of protesters that chose to open their eyes and see the elephant.