By RICARDO CASTILLO
Fear does not ride on the back of a burro; fear flies in the president’s airplane.
This combined old and new adage is being applied to the dread being expressed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over his two beloved pet projects, both developed during his six-year mandate that will conclude next Nov. 30. Those projects are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the Energy Reform and the construction of the New Mexico City International Airport, or NAICM, for its Spanish language initials (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México.)
The president’s fear that both his projects may be shot down in the near future is not unwarranted since opposition presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) – as the electoral campaign kicks off this weekend – is promising to do just that.
The Energy Reform, by which the president opened up the country’s state-run oil monopoly company Pemex, as well as the Federal Electricity Commission, to foreign investment, is still considered as “treasonous” by AMLO. Peña Nieto is defending that decision as hard as he can, but his low popularity is now making his battle like fighting a bull in harsh winds — the cape flies up, exposing the matador to getting fatally gored. With every defense, Peña Nieto is being criticized in even harsher terms by the Mexican public, mainly because his Energy Reform is a turkey that just won’t fly.
But the Energy Reform is not Peña Nieto’s worst fear. What is irking him the most is the $13.1 billion construction of the NAICM, which AMLO says he’ll stop dead cold if elected president next July 1. This is because at stake is not only the airport but also a commercial mega-project called Aerotropolis, that involves the over 10,000 acres of land surrounding the NAICM.
To some, the business the airport may eventually produce is peanuts compared with earnings Aerotropolis will bring over the next 100-years. The development includes malls, hotels, urban expressways, industrial parks, elegant housing units, and a sports clubs including an 18-hole golf course, a free-trade zone, and maybe a Disneyworld type of amusement park as well as a railway spike that will connect the area by train to the Gulf of Mexico port of Veracruz. In short, Aerotropolis will be Latin America’s largest logistics hub.
AMLO has claimed that the NAICM is wrongly projected as it is built on the silt of the ancient Texcoco lake bed and it will only add further traffic problems to an already over-populated area. He also says it goes against the will of the people who live around the proposed mega-projects. Let’s not forget that back in 2001, former Mexican President Vicente Fox tried to stage a land-grab over the area, a move that resulted in the “War of the Machetes,” in which thousands of protesters wielding machetes marched through the streets of Mexico City. Fox had to scrap his version of the project.
Even with this background in mind,President Peña Nieto went on to use the federal government land for the NAICM project, making it a mixed capital venture. In fact, the Mexican Stock Exchange (Bolsa) last Friday auctioned a package of futures stocks called Fibra E to finance construction of the airport for $1.5 billion. It sold well, but, under current circumstances, not as well as expected.
A main issue at hand is the honesty with which all the construction contracts are being awarded. AMLO suspects that there’s “a lot of corruption going on” behind the scenes, particularly after the nation’s Federal Superior Audit committee announced “irregularities” in the construction of the protection wall surrounding the facility.
AMLO, as well as several senators, demanded the immediate revision of all contracts to make sure that there are no kickbacks or any other illegal meanderings going on by those participating in the biddings for the contracts. The head of the construction project, Federico Patiño, felt offended by the insinuation that crooked deals were being made under his aegis, but added that all contracts are posted in the NAICM website for anyone to check out.
AMLO, in tandem with the Business Coordinating Council (CCE), has agreed to form a committee to inspect all the contracts. In theory, AMLO’s political parties Morena, Labor and Social Encounter would provide five accountability specialists, the CCE would supply another five and the Peña Nieto administration five more. Thus far, AMLO and the CCE have agreed to the idea, but the Peña Nieto administration is still refusing to participate.
And in terms of the electoral campaign, AMLO’s proposal was outright rejected by the president’s appointed candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), José Antonio Meade, who claims “there is nothing to revise.”
Patiño also says that the construction project “has turned political” instead of being what it’s intended to be, a business development enterprise.
“I am convinced that, like (U.S. President Donald) Trump’s wall, they have tucked the NAICM into the political arena. We’ve got to get it out of there,” he insisted.
Easier said, however, than done. The NAICM project will definitely become the key debating point of the Mexican presidential election, with candidates for and against. Moreover, he proposed airport is not just a national project. The candidates for Mexico City governor will be talking about it as well because construction plans continue unabated by the ongoing debate.
Still, the takeaway from Peña Nieto’s speeches these days is that what he fears the most is that AMLO will win the election.
He is not alone.
For many Mexicans, the prospect of AMLO in Los Pinos is scary. One can only wonder, why?