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Mexico’s President Peña Nieto faces ‘perfect storm’ of problems, derailed reform agenda

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mexico's president visited Washington today, meeting with President Obama at the White House.

    Though he campaigned and had an early record as a reformer, corruption scandals and public outcry have sparked a political crisis for the Mexican leader. One recent newspaper poll showed that he has the lowest approval for a head of state there in nearly 20 years.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    Our first meeting of the year is with one of our closest allies, neighbors and friends.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And that's no accident, of course. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto arrived at a moment when Mr. Obama most needs his help on two major initiatives, first, his November order to defer deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants.

  • BARACK OBAMA:

    I described to President Pena Nieto our efforts to fix our broken immigration system here in the United States and to strengthen our borders as well. We are going to provide a mechanism so that families are not separated who have been here for a long time.

    But — but we're also going to be much more aggressive at the border in ensuring that people come through the system legally.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, second, the move toward normalizing relations with Cuba. American isolation of the Castro regime has long been an irritant in broader U.S.-Latin American relations.

  • PRESIDENT ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, Mexico (through interpreter):

    I have acknowledged the very audacious decision that you have made to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Mexico will be a tireless supporter of the good relationship between two neighbors.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The Mexican leader may also hope today's visit to snowy Washington grants him respite from an avalanche of crises at home. He took office in December 2012. But just two years later, he is reeling.

    Last June, 22 gang members were killed by Mexican soldiers outside Mexico City. Mounting evidence now suggests it was a massacre. Then, in September, the kidnapping and presumed murders of 43 college students in Guerrero state, allegedly by a drug cartel working with a corrupt mayor and police.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    I want something done, concrete actions, and not just words.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Massive protests over the crime and the government's apparently casual response have filled streets throughout Mexico.

    And now it's alleged that private contractors bankrolled lavish homes for the president and his wife, as well as Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, who met with Vice President Biden this morning.

    But Pena Nieto has also pushed reforms, taking on the powerful teachers union and seeking to change Mexico's outmoded state-run oil company, Pemex, and implement reforms in the country's telecommunications sector. The president can also point to notable arrests last year in Mexico's long-running drug war, including perhaps the most wanted man on Earth, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel.

    For more on the Mexican president's leadership and challenges, I'm joined by Carlos Bravo Regidor. He's a political analyst at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. It's a Mexican think tank.

    Professor Bravo Regidor, thank you for talking with us.

    I gather the agenda on the Mexican side and the U.S. side were alike in some ways, but different in some ways. What do you know about that?

    CARLOS BRAVO REGIDOR, Center for Research and Teaching in Economics: In terms of the agenda, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this meeting is the fact that, on the one hand, President Obama was facing significant pressures to put human rights and security on the table, particularly the disappearance and probable killing of 43 students from the rural school of Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero.

    And President Pena Nieto, well, he was interested in talking about other things, about the border, about tightening commercial relationships, even about Cuba, but really not very interested in talking about human rights and security.

    So I think we're going to see some very interesting phrasing of the subject, you know, as a result of the meeting.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you think President Pena Nieto gets something from this meeting that he can take home?

  • CARLOS BRAVO REGIDOR:

    Well, to be honest, I think that, in terms of his domestic agenda, the most important thing that he will bring home is the photo-op, so to speak.

    President Pena Nieto is facing a really hard time in Mexico due to, well, an alleged extrajudicial execution of 22 citizens in the town of Tlatlaya in the state of Mexico, the Ayotzinapa situation that I just mentioned, and also the conflict of interests regarding his dealings, his wife and his minister of finance, regarding their dealings with a government contractor who built and financed their private homes.

    So, in the context of that — of that — of those scandals and of that crisis, I think it's good for President Pena Nieto — or I think he expects him — he expects for his image with President Obama to give him some sort of boost, because, well, his popularity right now is really, really low.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why is it — has it been so hard for him, do you think, to have a successful presidency? Why is he having these difficulties? And do you see a prospect that he has to make things better for himself? What are his — what are expectations right now for him?

  • CARLOS BRAVO REGIDOR:

    Well, he's having a very hard time because he arrived to the presidency with very high expectations. There was an expectation that he was going to be an effective leader, a leader who produced results.

    And in the first months, even the first year, year-and-a-half of his presidential term, President Pena Nieto really lived up to those expectations. He was able to push through congress a very ambitious agenda of reforms in education, telecommunications, fiscal reform and energy reform, which really put the expectations even higher.

    But, for the last six months, the implementation of the — of some of these reforms has stagnated or has faced some difficulties in terms of the regulations or of the federal system that Mexico has and the distribution of competencies between different levels of government.

    On the other hand, economic performance has been very mediocre, which is — is a structural problem of Mexico's for the last at least three decades. And, on the other hand, President Pena Nieto very deliberately tried to take violence and insecurity off his presidential discourse and his presidential agenda.

    And, well, the Ayotzinapa situation, alongside with problems that have arised in the state of Michoacan, has forced him to bring back the agenda of violence and insecurity and human rights violations.

    So, all of these, you know, issues have combined to produce a sort of perfect storm for President Pena Nieto.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Professor Carlos Bravo Regidor, we thank you.

  • CARLOS BRAVO REGIDOR:

    Thank you for having me.

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