Mexico has always been uneasy and restless about its past. That's why it is valid, legitimate and necessary to investigate former Mexican presidents. We cannot forget the frauds, the abuses of power, the corruption and secret budgets of recent governments. That desire to know what happened – and perhaps get some justice – was reflected in the more than two million signatures apparently gathered to demand a referendum on former presidents.
Of course there must be an investigation. No president should have immunity. But we should know beforehand what we're getting into. This is a long and painful process. It will take years. And without a doubt it will distract from fundamental issues such as the terrible consequences of the pandemic and the growing number of violent crimes. Imagine, for example, the day when Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Felipe Calderón or Enrique Peña Nieto are called to testify. The country would stop.
More than individual trials, what we need in Mexico is a truth commission. And if that leads to hard accusations about specific crimes and violations, then a criminal process may follow later. What is most important is to learn what happened.
Mexico has extraordinary academics and completely independent historians who would be able to gather the necessary materials and carry out the investigations. And there is a need for a person with an impeccable reputation, accepted by all the political parties, to be in charge of this gigantic and controversial effort.
Countries that have gone on the extremely complex adventure of taking a look at their recent pasts with truth commissions – such as Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and South Africa – have emerged with strong democracies and fueled a process of reconciliation. In Chile, they even called it the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.
But that is what I do not see in Mexico. I don't see any interest in reconciliation. What I do perceive is more of a desire for vengeance. Just watch the morning news conferences by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and you'll see grudges against Calderón and Peña Nieto, two presidents he blames for the violence now lashing the country and has accused of alleged frauds that blocked him from winning the elections in 2006 and 2012.
There is a lot of investigate, dennounce and understand
Whether there is a referendum or a truth commission, I do want to know what happened in the huge electoral fraud in 1988, and what was the role of Manuel Bartlett, today director of the Federal Electricity Commission. After the system collapsed, Carlos Salinas de Gortari was declared the winner. But his opponent, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, would declare that “We are convinced there was fraud, 99 percent of Mexicans.”
I want to know the destination of the $854 million in the so-called “secret budget” during Salinas de Gortari's presidency. “Every government everywhere in the world has confidential funds for state responsibilities,” the former president told me during an interview in 2000. I believe that in 2020, it is time to reveal that secret.
I want to know how Ernesto Zedillo became the PRI candidate – and later won the presidency – after the murder of Luis Donato Colosio in 1994. “You'd better ask the PRI,” a surly Zedillo told me during an interview (in 1996) when I asked how Salinas chose him. Well, now it would be his turn to answer.
I want to know what happened to the idea of a “National Commission on Transparency” that Vicente Fox mentioned to me just after he won the presidency in 2000. What stopped him?
I want to know how “organized crime was taking control of entire towns and cities,” as former President Calderón wrote in his book, Decisiones Difíciles. How it shifted from “drug trafficking to drug trafficking plus retail,” and how the controversial decision to declare war on narcos was taken.
I want former President Peña Nieto questioned about the purchase of the 'White House,' about the many Odebrechet bribes to officials in his government, about the censorship of journalist Carmen Aristegui and about his responsibility for the 43 disappeared at Ayotzinapa. With so many questions, he should not be allowed to live comfortably in Madrid, or wherever he is.
I want, like many other Mexicans, for the former presidents to answer. That is all. And if they committed a crime or a fraud, to pay or go to prison like any other citizen.
Mexico will be a better country when we can be sure that a former president can be treated by the legal system exactly like any other citizen. The first step should and must be creating a truth and memory commission. We have been warned: This is a bottomless pit, and there will be harsh counterpunches from the dinosaurs who thought they were untouchable until recently. But Mexico must tell itself the truth. It is time.