Transformations require a big effort, even when the leaders of a country understand what’s at stake in a crisis and what needs to be done. But when the leaders of a country are entrenched and protective of their privileges, then transformation is not something that can be entrusted to them. That is exactly the situation in Mexico right now, where our economic and political elites don’t seem to understand what they have to do, or even what they have to say, in order to solve the two most urgent problems in the country: all-pervading impunity and rampant corruption.

When President Enrique Peña Nieto visited the state of Guerrero for the first time after the kidnapping of forty-three students on 26th September 2014 by organized crime and the local police, he asked the public to make an effort to get over the ‘moment of pain’ and to rebuild the state with a ‘propositive and constructive attitude’.

That was on December the 4th, less than two and a half months after the events. None of the students had been found by then. A few weeks before, the Attorney General had presented a hypothesis of what had happened: following orders by the mayor of Iguala, he said, the local police had kidnapped the students and delivered them to a group of narcos, who then murdered them, incinerated them and threw their remains into a river. But he had presented no hard evidence to support his theory. Still, the President decided it was time to get over the episode, a mere ‘moment of pain’.

Moreover, the next time he referred to the case, on January 27th, still with no mention of where the students could be, he said that we must not ‘get trapped’ in the case, and asked the nation to move forward with optimism. Solving a case so horrendous and so symptomatic of the entanglement of politics and criminal business was apparently not urgent any more; it was a sort of ‘trap’.

Following this logic, a few weeks ago a prominent businessman, Lorenzo Servitje, co-founder of one of the biggest junk food companies in Mexico, expressed his concerns about the social unrest, stating that some (unnamed) groups were taking advantage of a situation that had been blown out of proportion (‘se le ha dado una dimension que no tiene’). In this, he aligned himself with the leadership of the business council who, after initially demanding a thorough investigation, eventually pressured the government to put a stop to the growing protests around the country, to make them respect the law.

But none of these people said a thing when it was revealed that many of their colleagues had been part of a laundering scheme by HSBC that included politicians, criminals and entrepreneurs from all over the world. Neither did they ask for ‘mano dura’ when the same bank was fined in 2012 for laundering billions of dollars for terrorists and drug cartels. So much for going after the ‘vandals’.

All this has been happening in the context of another story that puts into question how our elites understand the rule of law. In the last few months there have been revelations that the President and several other high-ranking government officials have acquired properties with the help of huge government contractors. After weeks of simply assuring everyone there was no wrongdoing, the President appointed a Minister of Public Service whose first task was to look into the cases and determine if there had been any conflict of interest. The problem is that the person he appointed is not an independent investigator but a bureaucrat on Peña Nieto’s payroll, who also happens to be a close friend. Upon finishing the press conference in which he announced this, the President looked a bit embarrassed by the silence that hung in the room. Pointing at the press corps, he said to one of his aides, ‘I know they don’t applaud.’

It’s easy to mock a politician for a lack of cheering, or his mispronunciation of the place where the kidnapped students come from (he repeatedly referred to ‘Ayotzinapan’ instead of ‘Ayotzinapa’, as if he didn’t know what he was talking about). Scorn towards the powerful is healthy, but sometimes it doesn’t allow us to see what’s behind their ‘slips’ and ‘fumbles’. People used to make jokes about how the former President Calderón said that he never pronounced the word ‘war’ to define his irresponsible strategy towards organized crime, even though he did precisely that on at least eight occasions. But when a man in charge of an army declares war and then forgets about it, it’s more than a funny story about his forgetfulness.

The words of a president are more than his personal quirks; they are the explanation of his policies, no matter how clumsy those words may be. So, when our current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, says that a tragedy as horrendous as the one that took place in Ayotzinapa is just a ‘moment of pain’, and when he expects to be applauded for pretending that he is doing something against corruption, it is not surprising that he and his billionaire allies see the protesters —and not the people who have been financing mass murderers for years now— as the biggest danger to our stability. Mexicans cannot feel frustrated with their ‘leaders’, because they have been very clear about their priorities. But we have to be clear that, when they talk about reforms, they are just talking about minor adjustments to business as usual.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is available to buy from Foyles book shop.

Read English PEN’s open letter to President Nieto on the occasion of his visit to the UK.