MEXICO CITY (AP) — Since taking office nearly two years ago, President Enrique Pena Nieto has sought to project an image of Mexico on the move, beating back chronic drug violence and pressing ahead with historic constitutional and economic reforms, even offering to contribute soldiers to UN peacekeeping missions in other parts of the globe.
The problem is that, back home, Mexico's grotesque cycle of violence continues, with soldiers and police implicated in recent atrocities. Pena Nieto's determination to focus on Mexico's moment has been derailed by Mexico's mess.
International human rights groups are calling an alleged massacre of 22 suspected gang members in southern Mexico this year a test case for the president, and the world is demanding answers in the disappearance of 43 college students, who are feared buried in mass graves discovered since they vanished Sept. 26 following a clash with police.
Pena Nieto addressed the violence twice this week as everyone from outraged Mexicans to the United Nations and the U.S. State Department called for a full accounting in both mass killings.
He said he has exhorted his security Cabinet to step up the investigation.
"This tarnishes the collective national effort we have to truly turn Mexico into a country of greater progress and development," he said, referring to the disappearance of the 43 students from a teachers college.
Until now, Pena Nieto had left security to his interior minister as the administration restricted the release of information and played down drug-related crime.
The macabre headlines probably are not what Pena Nieto was hoping for during a period in which his security forces nabbed two top drug traffickers and the president was awarded the Global Citizen Award by a U.S. think tank. In the case of the missing students, many of the bodies in the mass grave were burned. One victim of the police violence had his skin peeled from his skull. More than two dozen local police have been arrested in the case.
"It has become increasingly evident that in the process of not allowing this single issue to hijack this administration, he has made the mistake of ignoring it altogether," said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Pena Nieto took office vowing to change the narrative after his predecessor's bloody war on drugs, portraying Mexico as ready to lead and as fertile ground for foreign investment. His administration has pushed through reforms to the education system, changed the tax code and opened the energy sector to more foreign investment, among other achievements. He can also point to a string of high-profile drug arrests including that of Juarez cartel leader Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, whose capture was announced Thursday, and Hector Beltran Leyva, who was apprehended last week while eating fish tacos in a central Mexico seafood restaurant.
But the taking down of capos also has grim side effects. As major drug organizations were dismantled under Pena Nieto's predecessor, smaller and often more-violent bands have taken their place, causing a spike in crimes such as kidnapping and extortion. The students in the southern state of Guerrero allegedly went missing at the hands of corrupt police working with the Guerreros Unidos, which was born out of the breakup of the once-powerful Beltran Leyva cartel.
The mayor of Iguala, where the students disappeared, is on the run amid accusations that he and his wife were linked to the drug gang and to killings, allegations that date back at least to last year.
Some are calling this the biggest crisis so far for Pena Nieto's administration, a watershed moment similar to scandals decades ago that led to the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission and the dismantling of a government organization for political spying.
Pena Nieto on Thursday called on all levels of government to do their jobs and coordinate in fighting violence.
"This is a moment for new ideas, not just telling us to all to behave well," Milenio newspaper columnist Carlos Puig wrote Friday about Pena Nieto's response so far. "It's time for something much more serious than just 'coordination.'"
So far, there don't seem to be many new ideas.
"The objective is to keep everything under the rug, but it doesn't work for very long," said Erubiel Tirado, a security expert with the Iberoamerican University.
It now appears that federal and state officials have known for some time about the drug-cartel ties of Iguala Mayor Jose Luis Abarca, who has been pictured with Pena Nieto and several of his Cabinet members.
And the government version of what happened during a June 30 confrontation between soldiers and suspected gang members keeps evolving, ever since a witness described it to the media as an extrajudicial massacre. The witness, who has not given her name for fear of reprisals, said 21 of the 22 were killed after surrendering.
The army originally said all 22 died during a fierce gunbattle with troops, but the story changed in recent weeks to pin the killings on three rogue solders now charged with murder.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam on Friday said that the majority of the alleged criminals killed that day had already died in a shootout, but that at least eight were still alive when three soldiers finished them off.
He said the witness now confirms the government's version. She is not available for comment.