In mid-May, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto proposed legislation to legalize same-sex marriages throughout Mexico. (They have been legal in Mexico City for 11 years.)
Bernardo Barranco, expert on church-state relations, speculates that Peña Nieto’s sudden liberal public relations crusades—same-sex marriage, drug-law reform—occur at a moment when his general approval rating is lower than that of any president in decades and his reputation as a repressor is on the upswing. He adds that the opposition from the church to such marriages is less strident than before after the pope asked priests to stop, in Barranco’s words, “obsessing with moral issues”. (Subsequent to Barranco’s comments, the archbishop of Cuernavaca led a bizarre march against GLBT marriage and street crime on Saturday, May 21. Cuernavaca is capital of the state of Morelos, where the legislature just passed a pro-GLBT law.)
Barranco’s theory appears credible given that even the New York Times editorialized, two weeks before Peña Nieto’s announcement, that Mexico’s government seemed more intent on helping people forget the disappearance of 43 students from the teachers’ college in Apotzinapa in September of 2014 than in finding out or revealing what really happened. Concessions on a liberal issue or two seemed likely to work as distractions.
Peña Nieto has supervised Mexico’s worst crisis in violence against women in years. On average, seven women are murdered per day somewhere in the country; a disproportionate number of the crimes occur in Chihuahua—where Ciudad Juárez was a stop on the pope’s recent public relations tour, during which church and state collaborated to assure that the killing of women was not mentioned—and in Guerrero, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, and the president’s home state, Estado de México (where the pope made another stop, in the large working class suburb of Ecatepec, where women’s mutilated bodies are found regularly in a foul-smelling river known as Río de los Remedios). One of the most prominent possible victims of misogynist violence in Estado de México may have been Mónica Pretellini, the president’s first wife. When he was still governor in 2007, she died young, apparently in her sleep, with no apparent cause and with contradictory explanations. Some versions suggested epilepsy, some an overdose of antidepressants. Peña himself told reporter Jorge Ramos in 2009 that he couldn’t remember how she died. (Ramos is the Mexican reporter, based in California, who was thrown out of a Trump rally earlier this year.) Rumors abound of beatings allegedly administered by Peña Nieto against both wives and others. Within months, Peña Nieto was engaged to soap opera star Angélica Rivera, with whom he made a pilgrimage to the Vatican to negotiate an annulment of her marriage and to present himself to Francisco’s predecessor as a soon-to-be candidate for the presidency. A year before, in May, 2006, Peña Nieto was one of various government officials (along with then-president Vicente Fox) who ordered a raid against residents of the town of Atenco who had protested the proposed construction of an airport on their communal lands. Forty-seven women and several men accused state and federal police of sexual assault. This is not the only time that the president has been accused of using rape as a weapon of political repression.
Knowing all this and more, a few moderate GLBT and feminist activists accompanied Peña when he announced his intention to propose new legislation. Activist Mariana Favela wrote a widely circulated and well received article entitled “Why the Photo-Op with Peña Nieto was a Strategic Error” in which she said that “Peña needed the photo to look good for the UN” during “one of the worst humanitarian crises in history,” including sexual violence and the handling of the murders of the students of Ayotzinapa and in another case in the nearby town of Tlatlaya. She warned that when conservative politicians suddenly support progressive change, these “concessions often hide processes of the re-articulation of the structures of exploitation,” and asks: “Isn’t the feminicidal state using the rainbow to cover up a network of trafficking and sexual exploitation…and forced disappearances? How should we position ourselves in the face of this? Are we willing to collaborate? Don’t the people who attended yesterday’s meeting think that the people who administer the horror were also in the room?”
Javier Gutiérrez Marmolejo, one of the first men to marry another man legally in Mexico City, became known as an activist during the student strike at the national university in 1999 and is now professor at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, where he has served as a member of the university council and president of the union. He supports Favela’s criticism and explains that “Center-left electoral groups, pushed by civil society, had already presented iniciatives for marriage rights and other human rights issues, including trans questions, which got nowhere at the federal level. So now, just as the ruling party, the PRI, is about to lose various governorships, the federal government’s strategy is to whitewash its image, go after the votes that will help the party survive and wash its hands of the human rights disaster that it has created. It’s positive that the GLBTTTI human rights agenda moves forward, but not at the cost of legitimating the PRI and Peña Nieto.”