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Enrique Peña Nieto - President (non-U.S.) - Biography

Enrique Peña Nieto Biography

President (non-U.S.) (1966–)
A career politician, Enrique Peña Nieto was elected President of Mexico in 2012.

Who Is Enrique Peña Nieto?

President Enrique Peña Nieto was born on July 20, 1966, in Atlacomulco, Mexico. Interested in politics from the time he was a boy, Peña Nieto quickly climbed the ranks of power and at the age of 39 was elected governor of the State of Mexico. In 2012, Peña Nieto won the Mexican presidency with 38 percent of the vote. However, his administration was marked by various scandals and an inability to stem the country's violent drug trade, resulting in diminished approval ratings over his six-year term.

Early Years

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was born on July 20, 1966, in the Mexican city of Altacomulco, located in the northwest region of the country. The oldest of four children, Peña Nieto had an upper middle-class childhood. His mother, María, worked as a school teacher while his father, Gilberto, was an engineer with the national electric company.

As a boy, Peña Nieto professed an early passion for politics. At Denis Hall School in Alfred, Maine, which he attended during his junior year of high school in 1979 so that he could learn English, Peña Nieto told classmates he planned to be governor of his home state.

Political Rise

Peña Nieto's interest in politics was partly the result of proximity. A close family friend, Jorge Jiménez Cantú, served as governor of the State of Mexico, as did his father's cousin, Alfredo del Mazo González. Peña Nieto ended up working for both men during their respective times in office.

Peña Nieto earned his law degree in 1989 from Universidad Panamericana in Mexico City, and in 1991 his M.B.A. from Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education. It was while studying law that Peña Nieto aligned himself with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico's dominant political party, whose controversial and often corrupt rule of the country's presidency spanned 71 years, from 1929 to 2000.

In the 1990s, the young lawyer immersed himself in political work. Leveraging his connection to Alfredo del Mazo González, Peña Nieto worked various lower-level positions, including as delegate to the Organization and Citizen Front and as chief of staff for the nation's secretary of economic development. Beginning in the late '90s and into the early 2000s, Peña Nieto assumed higher profile political appointments, allowing him to forge important relationships with important politicos and business leaders.

Congressman and Governor

After running for and winning several key state offices, including administration secretary (2000-02) and congressman (2002-04), Peña Nieto, who was still not 40, put his hat in the race for governor for the State of Mexico. Hardly a favorite at the outset of his campaign, Peña Nieto proved to be an adept politician and attracted voters with an agenda that was built around his more than 600 promises he pledged to execute, from building highways to creating better water systems.

Voters got behind his campaign and on February 12, 2005, Peña Nieto was sworn in as governor, the fifth member of his extended family to be elected to the position.

President of Mexico

While political opponents questioned Peña Nieto’s ability to carry out his campaign promises, his six-year run as governor was largely viewed as successful and made the governor a national figure. Leveraging his reputation, Peña Nieto ran for the Mexican presidency in 2012. Pledging to turn around the country’s economy and continue Mexico’s push to crack down on drug cartels, Peña Nieto overcame the PRI’s longstanding reputation as a corrupt political force to win back the presidency for the party.

His win was met with an immediate charge of buying votes. Peña Nieto’s opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, citing reports of “irregularities,” held off on conceding the election until the final election results were confirmed.

Peña Nieto took office on December 1, 2012, and immediately made moves to strengthen his country’s security forces to battle the alarming violence that the drug cartels had brought to parts of Mexico. This included the creation of special units that worked exclusively on missing persons cases.

Peña Nieto’s other work involved deregulating the country’s energy industry so international firms could gain access to Mexico’s vast oil and gas reserves. In addition, Peña Nieto worked to strengthen the country’s automobile industry by making it easier for car makers, including Audi, Kia and BMW, to build factories in Mexico. During the first two years of the Peña Nieto presidency, more than $19 billion was invested in Mexico’s automobile sector.

El Chapo Arrest and Escape 

Peña Nieto also received international acclaim in February 2014 when Mexican marines captured Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, head of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel. That goodwill ended, however, when on July 11, 2015, Guzman escaped from the maximum-security prison where he’d been held.

The El Chapo case highlighted the unevenness of Peña Nieto’s presidency. Despite his commitment to security, the drug trade continued to ravage the country. In the fall of 2013 the disappearance of 43 Mexican students as well as the killing of 22 citizens by Mexican soldiers put a spotlight on Peña Nieto’s inability to back all of his campaign pledges.

As a result, Peña Nieto faced shrinking approval ratings over the course of his term in office. The low numbers reflected declining public confidence in the president being able to take on important issues, and bolstered the narrative that he was little more than an empty suit and puppet of his party.     

Personal Life and Controversy

In 1994, Peña Nieto married Monica Pretelini Saenz. The couple had three children together and remained married until her death in 2007 from an epileptic episode. In January 2012, Peña Nieto revealed that he had fathered two children out of wedlock during his marriage to his first wife.

In 2010, Peña Nieto married Angelica Rivera, a soap opera star on Televisa, Mexico’s largest television network. Controversy ensued, however, when it was revealed in 2014 that Rivera had purchased a mansion at a discount from a contractor with significant business connections to her husband. Rivera eventually returned the property after much scrutiny into the appropriateness of the transaction, though she stated that the home was paid for via funds from her entertainment work.    

In August 2016, Peña Nieto found himself embroiled in more controversy. First, it was reported that he had plagiarized nearly 29 percent of his 1991 undergraduate law thesis, "Mexican Presidentialism and Alvaro Obregon." Among the plagiarized content were 20 paragraphs that were found to be copied directly from a book by former Mexican president Miguel de la Madrid. In response, Eduardo Sanchez, a spokesman for the president, downplayed what he called “style errors” from the president’s 25-year-old thesis. 

Peña Nieto also made headlines around that time when he extended invitations to both U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to meet with him in Mexico. Trump took him up in the offer, prompting speculation about how Peña Nieto would respond to the candidate's promise to build a giant Mexican-funded wall on the U.S. border, and other derogatory comments about Mexican immigrants. The majority of Mexican citizens were displeased by the impromptu meeting, and Peña Nieto was criticized afterwards for not publicly challenging Trump’s statements and defending his people.

Peña Nieto’s political problems seemed to be deepening in late 2017, when a former deputy, Alejandro Gutiérrez, was arrested as part of an investigation into illegal use of public money to fuel the PRI's campaigns. With several of the president's allies suspected of embezzlement, the investigation threatened to splinter the highest ranks of Mexico's government.

Final Months in Office

Limited to one term in office, Peña Nieto could do little to prevent the election of leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the National Regeneration Party on July 1, 2018. Peña Nieto's successor in the PRI, José Antonio Meade, garnered just 15 percent of the vote, compared with more than 53 percent for the winner.

Regardless of the political differences, Peña Nieto called the president-elect to congratulate him and pledged to help carry out an orderly transition.

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