By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Expectations were high when a maverick businessman favoring cowboy boots and plain talk won the presidency in 2000, defeating the party that had governed Mexico for 71 consecutive years.
Mexicans hoped that their country would take a new course under Vicente Fox's center-right National Action Party, or PAN, with government corruption uprooted, the police and justice systems strengthened and poverty curtailed.
But they have been disappointed by drug trafficking violence, and the failure to prosecute government corruption or correct judicial inefficiency under the PAN's leadership, first under Fox and then under current President Felipe Calderon, who barely squeaked by in a contested 2006 election. Despite a more open economy and a bigger middle class, more than half of the nation's 120 million people still live in poverty.
Amid the dashed hopes of many Mexicans, the PAN is battling to retain the presidency in July 1 balloting as the formerly entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party known as the PRI seems poised for a comeback.
"When I voted for Fox and for Calderon I expected change," said Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, diplomat and environmentalist. "We thought corruption was going to end, that the country would be well-governed but now we see with disappointment that the lack of justice continues, the corruption we knew continues, and now we can add incompetence in governing to that."
Since its 1939 founding, the pro-business PAN has billed itself as an anti-corruption crusader that made pinpointing the abuses of PRI governments its main mission. Fox was elected largely because he promised to break with the past and vowed to crush the corrupt "black snakes" and "toads" of the old regime.
The night Fox was declared the winner, thousands of ecstatic Mexicans donning masks of the mustached leader and waving the country's red, white and green flag rushed to celebrate beneath the gilded angel of Mexico City's Independence monument. A coffin decorated with the PRI logo was passed among the crowd. Many equated the PAN's victory to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But the euphoria quickly wore off.
Fox "marketed democracy to the Mexican people and sold it as a panacea for all of their individual, personal concerns," said David A. Shirk, director of the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute and author of a book about the PAN. "The expectations that people had were the expectations that Fox set for himself, and they were frankly unrealistic."
Once president, Fox made accountability for the PRI's past crimes and the fight against corruption the centerpieces of his administration but achieved little in both efforts.
In one of the most high profile cases of government corruption gone unpunished by the Fox administration, a former union leader of the state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos company, known as Pemex, was accused of diverting as much as US$170 million in state oil funds to the 2000 presidential campaign of the PRI candidate, Francisco Labastida. The party was fined $1 billion pesos (about $90 million dollars) but no one was criminally prosecuted in the case dubbed "Pemexgate."
The former rancher and governor of the central state of Guanajuato also had little success prosecuting former PRI officials accused of oppressing dissent, or strengthening the nation's law enforcement.
Faced with growing drug trafficking violence, Fox created the Federal Agency of Investigation, or AFI, shortly after taking office to replace the notoriously corrupt and inept Federal Judicial Police. The AFI was disbanded in 2009 after one-fifth of its agents were suspected of cooperating with drug cartels.
Once seen as the hope for change, Fox is now often remembered for his quips and blunders, including his declaration that he would revive the countryside and solve a guerrilla rebellion "in 15 minutes."
Experts say PAN administrations have been unsuccessful because Fox and Calderon have faced stiff opposition in Congress, where many of their proposed reforms were diluted or killed.
Others blame corruption for the party's woes.
"The problem with the PAN is that it got into power and it started desperately stealing, and they stuffed themselves as if they were dying of hunger," said Manuel Clouthier Carrillo, a former PAN congressman whose father, Manuel Clouthier del Rincon, was among the party's founders.