MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Humiliated by the escape of Mexico’s most wanted criminal from a maximum security prison, President Enrique Pena Nieto is under pressure from across the political spectrum to replace his interior minister. But party considerations may stay his hand.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s July 11 jail break through a mile-long tunnel that surfaced right in his cell turned one of Pena Nieto’s greatest successes - the drug lord’s arrest in February 2014 - into a huge defeat.
“This is something the government must resolve,” said Senator Manuel Cota of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. “It’s exposed to being severely judged.”
The breakout has locked the president in a battle for credibility with the wily Guzman and left him wide open to ridicule by the opposition and in the media.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, one of the main contenders to succeed Pena Nieto in 2018, faces calls to resign and is vulnerable if he cannot quickly recapture Guzman.
A key political operator of the president, Osorio Chong has been battered by several scandals over the past year that might have cost him his job in other countries.
But Pena Nieto is resistant to cabinet reshuffles and public soul-searching, so ditching his interior minister while thousands of police and soldiers comb the country for Guzman would be a departure from past form.
“Making a sudden change now wouldn’t be the right answer,” said PRI congresswoman Ana Isabel Allende when asked if the president should make cabinet changes. “The right thing is to face up to the situation and take action, as is happening.”
To fire Osorio Chong would make the government look like it was caving in to pressure, and deny the man who oversaw Guzman’s 2014 capture a chance to redeem himself, said another PRI official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Still, Pena Nieto’s comments just after Mexican marines captured El Chapo in northwestern Mexico last year now haunt him and Osorio Chong. In late February 2014, the president said it would be “unforgivable” if the capo escaped again, and that he had sought assurances from his interior minister.
“We’re taking precautions. I’ve insisted on it, believe me, every day I’ve (said) to the head of the interior ministry, ‘Are you watching him closely? Are you sure?,’” he said.
Three senior PRI officials told Reuters in private they believe Osorio Chong, 50, should be replaced.
However, in the near term, Osorio Chong’s National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido is more likely to be pushed out, two high-ranking government officials said.
Osorio Chong’s record has come under close scrutiny since the attorney general’s office last autumn began investigating alleged army executions of suspected gangsters and collusion between police and a drug cartel in a massacre of 43 students.
Until then, Pena Nieto’s government had won plaudits for neutralizing many drug lords still at large, and pushing through ambitious reforms aimed at unlocking the economy’s potential after years of sputtering growth.
Four senior government officials said they believed the interior minister would not be removed, and Osorio Chong has himself rejected calls to stand down.
“One shouldn’t resign in moments of crisis, one should face them,” he told reporters last week.
Pena Nieto may continue to resist calls to fire Osorio Chong to keep his party’s presidential options open with three years to go until the next election. If he does opt for change, Osorio Chong might end up as PRI party leader, some officials say.
Gang violence hit record levels under the last government, and homicides have fallen significantly under Osorio Chong’s watch, particularly in northern Mexico.
However, his failure to contain drug cartels in western Mexico as well as disruptive protests in the capital and the southwest by militant teachers had damaged his standing even before Guzman’s escape.
At the same time, the image of his main cabinet rival for the PRI presidential ticket, Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, has been dented by a conflict-of-interest scandal and soft economic growth.
Videgaray, Pena Nieto and first lady Angelica Rivera have all been embarrassed by revelations that they bought houses from government contractors.
Political adversaries draw a direct link between the scandals and Guzman’s jailbreak.
“Guzman’s escape isn’t the work of pinpoint, geo-localized engineering,” said Javier Corral, a senator for the center-right opposition National Action Party (PAN). “It’s the fruit of the enormous corruption staining (Pena Nieto’s) government.”
Juan Carlos Romero Hicks, another PAN senator, said the government risks giving the impression that the drug lord is the one controlling events if no one at the top is held responsible for his escape.
“He showed he’s the strongest man in the country. Period,” Romero Hicks said. “The first thing any state must do is guarantee the rule of law. And this is what we are not doing.”
Additional reporting by Max de Haldevang; Editing by Kieran Murray