Why Mexicans Are Enraged by Obama’s Big Tuesday Meeting

The president is talking trade with his Mexican counterpart at the White House—and likely doing all he can to ignore that country’s violent unraveling.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

On Tuesday, President Obama will meet with Enrique Peña Nieto, the President of Mexico.

But the question is: “Which Mexico?”

There’s the Mexico that is all about money. It creates revenue, investment, and opportunity. Then there’s the Mexico that deals in misery. It generates tragedy, violence, and a windfall for undertakers.

Peña Nieto, the affable and telegenic 48-year-old who put the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) back into power after a dozen years on the sidelines, went to Washington to promote the first vision of Mexico — that of a friend, ally, neighbor and trading partner.

In fact, Mexico buys and sells more US goods than any other country on the planet except for Canada. The take comes out to more than $500 billion per year. This is the Mexico that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and most major U.S. corporations, are eager to call amigo.

And so, it’s no wonder that, according to senior officials with the Obama administration, the agenda for the meeting between Obama and Peña Nieto will center on economic issues like expanding trade, spurring more development in Mexico, cutting wait times and ensuring the freer flow of people and goods across the U.S.-Mexico border, and providing Mexico with more U.S. dollars to fight its drug war under the Merida Initiative.

Immigration will also come up, according to the officials. Obama is eager to tout his executive action to delay the deportations of perhaps as many as 3 million illegal immigrants. Two-thirds of those who likely to benefit from the new policy are Mexican. While this deferred action is controversial in the United States, in Mexico, what Obama did is universally popular. So he’ll try to get as much mileage out of it as possible.

For Mexico, the economics are clear. There are an estimated 6-7 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States, whom the Mexican economy doesn’t have room for anyway. And as a bonus, they send home more than $20 billion in remittances each year. So, as far as Mexican officials like Peña Nieto are concerned, the goal is to keep their countrymen here — and keep them happy.

But one thing that probably won’t be on the agenda, and, in fact, isn’t likely to be discussed at all is the elephant in the room. Actually, this time, the elephant will be in the street.

While Obama and Peña Nieto visit in the White House, there are expected to be thousands of protesters — most of them Mexican nationals who live in the U.S., both legally and illegally — screaming and waving placards just outside the gate. They’ll be calling Peña Nieto corrupt, incompetent, sinister, and worse. These protests are an extension of the massive and sometimes violent demonstrations that have roiled Mexico over the last few months. To the protesters on both sides of the border, el presidente is a murderer — or at least someone who covers up for murderers to help them escape punishment.

You see, there is another Mexico, one that is not so appealing to business but well known to law enforcement.

This is the Mexico that U.S. college students would be wise to steer clear of on spring break.

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This is the Mexico that often seems trapped in the Third World, the one that is hopelessly corrupt and where the criminal justice system is a dysfunctional relic. This is where criminals — even those who commit the most heinous of crimes — usually escape punishment because they’ve been shrewd enough to partner with powerful elected officials who protect them.

This is the Mexico that has been called a “failed state” — most recently by Jose “Pepe” Mujica, the president of Uruguay. When the Mexican government protested, Mujica walked back that comment. In fact, the very term — “failed state” — has been sensitive for Mexicans since it first appeared in 2009, in a published study by U.S. military planners. The U.S. Joint Forces Command said that our southern neighbor was one of two countries on the globe that could face a “rapid and sudden collapse.” The other country on the list? No less a trouble spot than Pakistan.

This is the Mexico where you’ll find a real war against women. According to the National Citizen Femicide Observatory, a consortium of 43 groups that seek to document the murders of women, six women are murdered every day in Mexico. Yet only 24 percent of the 3,892 femicides the group identified in 2012 and 2013 were looked at by authorities. And only 1.6 percent of the cases led to someone being arrested and sentenced. Most Mexicans don’t have faith in the country’s criminal justice system, because they’ve never seen it work properly.

And lastly, this darker and scarier version of Mexico is the place that appears to have recently swallowed up 43 student teachers in the small town of Iguala, about 120 miles southwest of Mexico City.

On September 26 — just 10 days after the festivities celebrating Mexico's Independence Day, a group of young men, between the ages of 18 and 25, who were studying at a nearby teachers college, traveled to Iguala to protest what they claimed were the school's discriminatory hiring practices. The young men were at one point, according to eyewitnesses, apprehended by local police officers. Their bodies were later found incinerated and buried in mass graves outside of town.

Even for a country like Mexico, which has seen its share of bloodshed — including more than 60,000 dead, and another 40,000 missing, in the first years of the drug war from 2006 to 2012 — the deaths of “the 43” was too much to bear. A huge political crisis has ensued, with regular and sometimes violent street protests demanding Peña Nieto’s resignation.

It’s not yet known whether federal law enforcement officers or the Mexican military played a part in what happened in Iguala, or if they knew it was going to happen beforehand and did nothing to stop it.

What is known is that Peña Nieto bungled his response to the crisis. He hasn't bothered to visit Iguala, the place where the students were abducted and killed. He did travel to China and Australia while the story was unfolding. And he didn’t even meet with the grieving parents for several weeks after the students went missing. He appeared heartless and tone deaf.

That’s why the Mexicans who are protesting outside the White House are enraged. Wouldn’t you be?

It’s surreal to hear senior administration officials talk about the meeting between Obama and Peña Nieto — and in fact, the whole relationship between the U.S. and Mexico —- in purely economic terms, as if they were playing Monopoly.

Do you think that, at a moment like this, Mexicans care about how much money some Americans are going to make by doing business with the homeland? Or how much richer a few rich Mexicans are going to get in the process?

These people are in pain. They’re not thinking about pesos. They’re looking for peace of mind.

And so it is that the United States finds itself caught between two Mexicos — one that looks enticing to the Chamber of Commerce, the other resembling a chamber of horrors.