Contaminated Politics

The manner in which a government responds to the just demands of its citizens determines the legitimacy of that government. In the past few months, we have seen two governments — the United States and Mexico — encounter situations that put their rule of law to the test.

We are not making an idle comparison, or a flippant apology, or a claim that no country is perfect. We are trying to assess the form in which each government resolves — or tries to resolve — a crisis. Let´s begin with what is happening in the United States.

In the last four months, racial tensions in the United States have once again monopolized the attention of the federal government and the media. The interactions between blacks and whites has dominated a good part of its history as a nation, and before that, as a colony. Now, the instances in which a white policeman has killed a black citizen have increased exponentially.

The trigger took place in Ferguson, a town in St. Louis County, Missouri. On Aug. 9, a white policeman killed a young black man. Soon after, there were similar cases in New York, Cleveland and Phoenix. Immediately, the federal government and the media were mobilized.

Many commentators tried — and continue trying — to redirect attention from the demonstrators’ reasonable demands toward other issues: the violent behavior of some protestors, statistics of blacks killing blacks and the idea that it is all just a matter of economic equality — in other words, an issue of class, and not race.

The first versions of what took place came from eye witnesses and friends of the victim. The municipal authorities kept silent. The protests continued, and President Barack Obama waited to speak up, preferring to send U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to Ferguson. Holder´s office has also begun an investigation into what took place in New York. It seeks to determine whether or not there were civil rights violations.

The federal government decided to intervene in these cases because the police and local authorities appear to have failed in their efforts. In an unusual act, the prosecuting attorney of St. Louis County did not present the elements necessary to bring the policeman to trial. He called only for a grand jury. This group listened to the testimony of the witnesses and exonerated the policeman. Something similar happened in New York.

The demonstrations have continued in many cities. They protest the manner in which certain white policemen behave with black suspects. Those instances have been called racial profiling: the tendency to pursue certain criminal suspects because they are black.

Some whites complain that blacks are playing the race card when they should be letting the police do their job. The truth is that there continues to be a marked racial division in the country. Many blacks fear the police and doubt the justice system.

President Obama does not have it easy. Last week he remarked that some Americans do not trust the police force. He mentioned that there are people who believe that they are not treated fairly, and he added that this problem is present throughout the country. He spoke in favor of an intervention by the federal government in the face of inadequate responses by the municipal authorities and police force. His answer to the racial tensions has been lukewarm.

In Mexico, the past few months have exposed the severity of the country´s political and social crisis. The political class has demonstrated its ineptitude at guaranteeing the rule of law. It cannot, or does not, want to fight the corruption and violence of the system, the impunity of criminals, and the influence of drug traffickers. Above all, it has not been able to shed light on the tens of thousands of deaths, nor resolve the scourge of disappearances.

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s task is much more complicated than Obama’s. Unfortunately, Nieto has not risen to the occasion. His speech on Nov. 27 and his attempts to justify his own assets have demonstrated this fact.

The trigger of the current national crisis was the violence of Sept. 26 that led to the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Guerrero. We presume that the mayor turned them over to organized criminals, and they were executed and burned. Last Sunday, the federal attorney general confirmed that the remains of one of the students had been discovered.

The federal authorities were slow to react. The initial investigations revealed the existence of numerous clandestine graves in Guerrero. The nightmare is only just beginning.

Later, dozens of police and municipal authorities, including the mayor of Iguala and his wife, were detained. The federal government was slow to intervene. The protests have increased, and the president´s challenge is enormous. Like in the United States, some television stations have concentrated on the acts of vandalism during certain demonstrations.

In Mexico, we have a problem of inequality and a lack of governability. Proposals for reform are multiplying, spanning from patching the constitution to relaunch the state.

In both countries, the heart of the issue seems to be the lack of confidence in the justice system. Obama knows there are limits to what a federal government can do. Peña Nieto shows no sign of being politically competent, and the institutions in charge of monitoring human rights lack credibility.

Obama sometimes confuses his presidential role with his past as a law professor. Peña Nieta operates Los Pinos, as if it were in Toluca.

Obama is looking to see how he can assure his legacy in the last two years of his second term. With four years ahead, Peña Nieto must figure out how to save himself politically. He will need to keep in mind that legislating is not governing.

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