A man takes part in a protest outside the government palace of Guerrero state in Chilpancingo, January 29, 2015.
A man takes part in a protest outside the government palace of Guerrero state in Chilpancingo, January 29, 2015.
Jorge Dan Lopez / Courtesy Reuters

In 2014, “The Perfect Dictatorship” became the Mexican film industry’s number one box-office hit. It spins politics into a plot as over-the-top as a telenovela. In it, a state governor pays a TV network to distract attention from his stunning incompetence, corruption, and violence. In the end, he’s elected president of Mexico.

The story is suspiciously like that of a real governor named Enrique Peña Nieto. Seen as being close to the Televisa network—his campaign was even accused of paying Televisa for favorable coverage—he won the Mexican presidency in 2012. To underline the parallel, the film’s opening titles proclaim that all names are fictional but the facts true: “Any resemblance or similarity to reality is not mere coincidence.”

The film captured the public mood: angry after recent abuses of power. (A criminal cartel had just killed 43 students at the behest of a mayor to block possible disruption of a campaign rally.) Yet it seems like only yesterday that Time made Peña Nieto person of the year after he forged the Pact for Mexico with rival parties to pass fundamental political, educational, and energy reforms. “Every time I speak to someone else from another country—from Denmark, Italy, Spain, the United States,” Foreign Affairs quoted him as saying in early 2014, “They tell me, ‘What we need is a pact like in Mexico.’”

It is hard to reconcile Peña Nieto’s status as person of the year and gangster in chief. But, as a symbol of the Mexican state, he is indeed both. And, strange as it may seem, both aspects of state power derive from St. Thomas Aquinas’ medieval ideal of governance. He envisioned the Catholic Church, the oldest extant government, as inherently prior to the individual, uniting society for the common good. The individual was a mere hand or leg apart from the body of society. The Spanish carried this ideal (even if often violated) to the New World.

Conversely, the liberal ideals of John Locke and the American Declaration of Independence, which reached Mexico much later, saw individuals as inherently prior to the state. The state existed just to protect the people’s life, liberty, and happiness—or, more bluntly, life, liberty, and property.

Wars wracked Mexico in the nineteenth century, pitting adherents of these opposing visions, along with plenty of opportunists, against each other. The battles began even as Mexico won independence in 1821, but Liberals launched a major reform era in 1855, proclaiming citizens’ rights and expropriating church lands. Overthrown by Conservatives, Liberals regained power in 1861, electing Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian, as president. They were out again when France and Mexican Conservatives imposed the Emperor Maximilian. But Liberals defeated him with U.S. support and executed him in 1867, restoring Juárez—for a time.

During the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the last of these wars, a delegate assembly passed a liberal Mexican Constitution broadly following the U.S. model. But liberalism didn’t work. Elections were held, and winners and losers swiftly took up arms to decide who had really won.

In the 1930s, Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas solidified the regime by reaching back to Aquinas. The Catholic Church had since renovated his thinking and dubbed it corporatism: social sectors should play harmonious roles in the political corpus, or body politic. Cárdenas and his successors duly incorporated peasants, blue-collar workers, government employees, professionals, and businesses into official corporatist sectors. Cárdenas’ party, subsequently named the Party of Institutional Revolution (PRI)—curiously claiming to institutionalize the liberal ideals of the 1910 Revolution even as it leaned on Thomas—thus tamed a restive society. The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa dubbed this regime the perfect dictatorship.

The old PRI regime worked far better than the one in the 2014 film—otherwise, it wouldn’t have been the perfect dictatorship. Living standards of peasants, workers, and the middle class rose as the economy grew six percent a year for half a century. Mexicans’ faith in the state endured. In a 1969 poll, an amazing 92 percent agreed that “the individual owes first loyalty to the state and only secondarily to his personal welfare.” The poll, which compared several nations, was conducted by U.S. political scientists.

As competitive elections arrived in the late 1990s, old corporatist sectors sprang to life like puppets after the puppeteer goes to sleep. Where the PRI had once used subsidies to control the sectors, they now poured money into political campaigns to buy influence. Among the most notorious were unions for workers in public education, the state electric utilities, and the state oil company, Pemex. The privatized phone company Telemex and the state’s old media ally, Televisa, also became powerful lobbyists.

For example, for decades in the opposition, the National Action Party (PAN), though nominally a Catholic party, had railed against Aquinas-style corporatist government and demanded liberal rights. But when Vicente Fox and then Felipe Calderón, of the PAN, won the presidency, they forged an alliance with the notoriously corrupt head of the teachers’ union. Throwing her weight behind Calderón, Elba Esther Gordillo undoubtedly provided the razor-thin margin of votes that delivered him the presidency in 2006. By 2013, she reportedly had siphoned off $200 million of union funds for everything from plastic surgery to mansions in San Diego.

Restoring the PRI to power in 2012, Peña Nieto vowed to attack such abuses. To his advantage, the PAN had lost support after disappointing Mexicans with mismanagement and failure to institute effective governance. But he also benefitted from his ability to access Aquinas’ ideal of a united society.

Peña Nieto fashioned the Pact for Mexico into a sort of perfect dictatorship 2.0. Rewarding and strong-arming rivals like a Mexican L.B.J.—but finally obtaining broad consent from the political class—he jailed Gordillo, made progress toward bringing the widely abused educational payroll under control, and instituted standards for the hiring and promotion of teachers. He exposed the inefficient energy sector to private competition. He established independent commissions to limit monopolies, notably Televisa and Telmex.

The pact allowed not only the PRI but also opposition parties to take credit: in polls, just a small portion of Mexicans saw the PAN and others as having opposed the reforms. Indeed, Peña Nieto’s achievement contrasts with U.S. President Barack Obama’s inability to secure cooperation. Of course, no nation adheres strictly to any political philosophy, but liberalism’s demand for the protection of individuals’ life, liberty, and property inherently tends to split the polity rather than unite it. When George III encroached on what the American colonists saw as their rights, they revolted to form a new republic, and this urge survives, if in moderated form.

But liberalism’s concern for defending individual rights does provide an inherent mandate for policing an intrusive state. For example, many on both the U.S. right and left have demanded limits on governmental use of new surveillance technologies. Aquinas had never seen the need to police the state. The church was the work of God. Mass was effective even if performed by a wicked priest, and the priest was fatally deluded if he imagined that “God does not see what he sees in himself.”

In that tradition, the old PRI had prevented courts from holding the government to the law. With a two-thirds majority in the Senate, the president could and did fire and replace judges, a few times even the entire Supreme Court bench. If loyal prosecutors lodged charges, the accused were presumed guilty. They did not even have the right to rebut charges in a public trial.

This conception of the law dies hard. Calderón’s campaign to defeat drug cartels provides one sad example. Despite belonging to the relatively liberal PAN, he attacked corruption and violence as if it were located outside the state. He threw the armed forces at cartels. The result? Human-rights abuses, fabrication of evidence, and tens of thousands of deaths. Even when the head prosecutor in charge of organized crime and the director of Interpol Mexico were caught on the payroll of a cartel, it didn’t seem to sink in that the real challenge was to fight corruption and violence within the state itself.

At the same time, recent Mexican presidents have instituted changes intended, at least on paper, to secure the rule of law. President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) granted the Supreme Court far more independence. It has not infrequently ruled against an administration position. Fox passed a Freedom of Information Act strengthening the press. Calderón initiated and Peña Nieto is implementing a new penal code to replace the abusive old system. As in the United States, it now promises the accused the presumption of innocence, the right to a public trial, and the ability to contest evidence. The pact gives future attorneys general more autonomy, so the executive will find it harder to manipulate judicial proceedings to protect supporters and punish enemies.

Unfortunately, what’s written on paper does not necessarily happen on the ground. Powerful protests about the students’ slaughter, as well as the moviegoers flooding to see “The Perfect Dictatorship,” show how angry Mexicans are at gangster politicians. But the general public is at fault too: it widely applauded Calderón’s drug policies when he launched them and turned against them only when they failed to deliver. In 2013, the Latin American Barometer indicated that more than 50 percent of Mexicans would be content with authoritarian governance under some circumstances, presumably if it delivered security.

In short, many in Mexico talk a good game about a government of laws, then applaud when the state looses the army and police to kill bad guys—that is, people presumed guilty. They need to think hard about what government they really want.

Peña Nieto deserves every credit for enlisting Aquinas’ vision to institute fundamental reforms. Now he must face head-on a deep problem at the heart of that vision. He has four more years to guide his administration closer to the law.

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  • JONATHAN SCHLEFER is author of Palace Politics: How the Ruling Party Brought Crisis to Mexico and The Assumptions Economists Make.
  • More By Jonathan Schlefer