THE BLOG
01/06/2015 12:11 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

Obama Should Not Prop Up Mexico's President

Miguel Tovar/STF via Getty Images

President Obama has nothing to gain -- and much to lose -- by propping up Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto will be in Washington today, seeking to bolster his support in the United States as it rapidly unravels in his own country.

Protests over the murder and disappearance of 46 students from a rural teachers' college in Ayotzinapa continue, in Mexico and among Latino communities in the U.S. Demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans in the streets began with the demand to bring the students back alive and has now broadened into a demand for the president's resignation.

The students were last seen being taken away by the local police of Iguala, Guerrero, on the night of Sept. 26. Three were killed when police opened fire on them without warning. Protesters call the massacre a "crime of the state."

Feeling the heat, the state governor Angel Aguirre resigned on October 23. Civil society groups are calling for his indictment for complicity in the crime and protecting known criminals. The mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, is being held for ordering the attacks and for collusion with the regional drug cartel, Guerreros Unidos. Recent evidence shows the Army and Federal Police had knowledge of the incident before, during and after and although they were moments away did not protect the students.

Since the killings, the Peña Nieto administration has fumbled along in what appears to be a massive cover-up. The president first insisted the crime was under state jurisdiction, despite the fact that international law considers enforced disappearances "by their very nature a crime against humanity" and that Transnational Criminal Organizations were implicated.

Later, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam announced that the Guerreros Unidos gang murdered the students and buried their bodies in clandestine graves. When the 30 bodies recovered were not the students, he declared that the criminals had incinerated the bodies at a dump in nearby Cocula and thrown the ashes in the river. One student was identified among remains found in bags in the river. But the parents and some forensics experts dispute the hypothesis of mass incineration at the dump.

We may never know the truth. President Peña presides over a nation of impunity. In Mexico, 98.3 percent of crimes go unpunished. The justice system has gotten worse, not better, since attempts at reform, which have been heavily funded by the U.S. government.

Protesters today follow a long tradition of fighting for democracy in Mexico. After overthrowing a dictator in 1911, the country suffered years of bloodshed. Despite gains in social justice, authoritarian, one-party rule was established under the telling name of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI, by its Spanish initials), whose rule lasted for 71 years.

Although the PRI achieved relative stability, a plus for the United States, it instituted corruption and coercion as the modus operandi of politics. It was former PRI leader Carlos Hank who coined the phrase "a poor politician is a bad politician" to reflect the assumption that part of a politician's job is to syphon off public funds.

Peña Nieto represents the return of the PRI after losing the presidency in 2000 and again in 2006. Many, including a student movement called IAm132, warned of a return of the old ways. Last year, journalists revealed that Peña Nieto's family home was financed by a construction firm heavily favored with government contracts while Peña Nieto was governor of the state of Mexico. This same firm was part of a consortium granted a contract for $3.7 billion to build a light rail line by the Peña administration. As a result of public outcry (there was only one bid) the contract was rescinded. Questions about the $7 million mansion remain.

If Obama gives President Peña Nieto the expected pat on the back, it will be a stab in the back to Mexican citizens' movement for justice and transparency. What Obama and Congress should do is announce full support for a thorough investigation and suspension of all police and military aid to Mexico. Congress must immediately stop funding Plan Mexico, officially known as the Merida Initiative -- the drug war aid package that has appropriated about $2.4 million to Mexico and look closely and responsibly at what U.S. aid is actually supporting in Mexico.

Our government should respect our own principles and laws on human rights and democracy, as well as Mexicans' efforts to save their nation from the abyss into which it's fallen.

President Obama must no longer lend U.S. political and economic support to an authoritarian system in crisis.