If the polls are correct, I am flying in a helicopter with the next president of Mexico. Enrique Peña Nieto, the governor of the State of Mexico since 2005, is on his way to inaugurate a new piece of road. As we thwap-thwap our way over dry cornfields split by a highway that stretches to the horizon, Peña Nieto puts a stick of gum in his mouth and slathers sunscreen on his face. “My priority is in creating infrastructure for investments to come in,” he says. In two days, he is scheduled to cut the ribbon of an overpass. “The voter needs to understand that I am looking after him.”
That must be why el góber (“the guv”), as Peña Nieto is known, has spent the past year inaugurating multiple public works each week. Members of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years until 2000, are gathering this fall to decide rules for nominating the party’s presidential candidate. Campaigning won’t begin until April, and the election itself won’t be held until next July. But Peña Nieto’s momentum—like the return of the PRI to power—already seems unstoppable. July polls showed him with a 30-point lead over his nearest expected rival; he was riding the wave of a massive PRI victory in recent state elections that swept his chosen successor into office, with the handover occurring on September 16. For a party with a storied history of corruption, malfeasance, and vote-rigging, Peña Nieto’s personal popularity offers easily the best chance in a decade to recover the presidency.
Peña Nieto’s presidential appeal has partly to do with voters’ anger at the failure of President Felipe Calderón’s administration to curb the savagery of the drug wars, and their feeling that they would be safer under the PRI, which has been widely thought to have cut deals with traffickers rather than fight them. But Peña Nieto has also enjoyed enormous clout from his control of the State of Mexico, or Edomex, whose gross domestic product is $77 billion and whose population of 15 million (with an estimated 10 million voters) outnumbers that of any other Mexican state. “Edomex,” says Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s former foreign minister, “is the whole enchilada.” And the PRI is no stranger to making sure that everybody gets a bite. As part of his gubernatorial campaign, Peña Nieto traveled through the state’s 125 municipalities asking residents what public works they needed. Before leaving, he would take out his pen, sign their wish list, and pledge to deliver whatever he signed. Peña Nieto signed his name more than 600 times and called the promises compromisos, or “commitments.” The segment of highway we’re flying over is Compromiso No. 496.
But in his rise to power, Peña Nieto, who is now 45, has also had other, less tangible assets: the good looks that have inspired his opponents to dub him “a male Barbie” or “the PRI’s policy Beckham”; and his partnership with Televisa, Latin America’s biggest mass-media company and, through its popular telenovelas, creator of stars like Salma Hayek. (According to Jenaro Villamil, a journalist at the liberal magazine Proceso, Peña Nieto pays Televisa about $2.4 million a year for media coverage.)
In January 2007, in a twist that could have sprung from one of Televisa’s shows, the new governor returned home one evening to find his first lady in bed, unwell. Hours later, she lay dead in the hospital, killed by a seizure-induced arrhythmia. The golden governor became the golden widower, Mexico’s most eligible bachelor, drawing cameras wherever he went. At political rallies, women chanted: Peña Nieto, bombón, te quiero en mi colchón—“Peña Nieto, sweetie, I want you in my bed.” And then, in a perfect soap-opera happy ending, the governor fell in love, with a Televisa star, no less: Angélica Rivera, known as “Seagull” after her character in Destilando Amor, a paint-by-numbers drama in which a poor peasant girl falls in love with a landed scion and, eventually, lives happily ever after. In a country where real life looks more and more like a snuff film, their courtship—complete with an engagement blessed at the Vatican—was a welcome fairy tale.
Peña Nieto’s magnetism is on full display at the opening of a highway overpass outside Mexico City two days later. Over a screechy sound system, Maribel Guardia, a popular television star, belts out electro-ranchera songs onstage, gyrating in a skimpy, PRI-colored outfit as people move to their seats. When el góber’s impending arrival is announced, I try to push myself into what’s known as the Hug Path. “I have been here since 6 a.m.,” a woman in full hair and make-up and a multicolor tunic tells me. “You can’t block my view. I came here to say hello to the next president of Mexico.” The woman, Noelia Juárez, is part of a group from Tlalnepantla de Baz, a PRI stronghold. I ask her why she would want Peña Nieto to run her country. “He has worked, he has kept his promises. He is very human, and he is gorgeous,” she tells me.
The governor has arrived. “But no hurry,” Juárez says, “it’ll take him an hour to get from the entrance to the stage. Women grab onto him and don’t want to let him go.”
As Peña Nieto gets closer, the women from Tlalnepantla huddle in front of the rope, arms on each other’s shoulders and cameras and cell phones ready. He moves slowly, one group at a time—an abrazo to all the males and cheek-to-cheek poses with anyone female.
Suddenly, as the governor passes in front of Juárez and turns to the other side of the path, her face goes from euphoric to ashen. Elgóber is giving her hug to someone right across from her. She throws her upper body across the rope, first her hand fluttering and then her entire arm, as if she wants to fly across, and calls his name. Peña Nieto turns and walks a few steps back. Juárez gets her hug, her peck, and her photo.
Onstage, the governor wipes the sweat from his forehead and sips from a water bottle. He sits at the center, like Jesus at the Last Supper. The mayor of Cuautitlán Izcalli, an attractive young woman in a PRI-red blouse, calls the new overpass a “product of this new way of governing, giving his life to the State of Mexico.”
Peña Nieto gets up to speak. He is good at being self-effacing: your governor, your servant, su amigo, he tells the crowd, thank you for allowing me to tell you what we have done for you. He is good at the theater of politics. As Castañeda told me, “Peña Nieto does get things done … But he doesn’t always seem intellectually curious, and he often sticks too close to his script.” Earlier, I had spoken with Alejandro Almazán, an investigative journalist who covered Peña Nieto when he was running for governor. “They show off those overpasses,” he said. “But so many in Edomex live with no sewage, electricity, or drinking water. And what you don’t hear is that the State of Mexico has a very high rate of women being murdered—as bad as Ciudad Juárez.” (Other critics of Peña Nieto’s self-promotion have pointed out that his advertisement of public works has sometimes cost more than the public works themselves, as in the case of new street lighting in Tezoyuca.) So why, I ask, is Peña Nieto likely to be the PRI’s candidate? “Not because he is the best,” says Almazán. “So many in the PRI have much more experience than him. But he is the one who will bring in the votes.”
“Before,” Peña Nieto tells the adoring crowd, “you were stuck in traffic for two and a half hours. After today, it will take you 15 minutes to join your families after work.” The “biggest parking lot in the world,” he says, has become 22 kilometers of a moving thoroughfare, at the cost of 6.5 billion pesos, or about $530 million. “What you do is what matters,” he concludes, emphasizing these last words with his right hand. Then he leaves the stage. The entire podium of VIPs retreats to a waiting convoy of shiny black SUVs ready to be the first to roll down Compromiso No. 497.