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Mexico leader opens summit amid security crisis

Mexico’s embattled President Enrique Pena Nieto opened a summit of Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese leaders Monday, turning his attention to diplomacy as he faced anger at home over a security crisis.

Pena Nieto hosted the two-day Ibero-American summit in Veracruz as Mexico’s image is tarnished by a security nightmare stemming from the September disappearance and probable massacre of 43 students.

Mexican officials were hoping for a better attendance than past summits, which have lost their luster over the years.

“Today in Mexico the moment has arrived to define the future of Ibero-America,” Pena Nieto said as he inaugurated the summit, 23 years after the first one in Guadalajara, western Mexico.

It is Spanish King Felipe VI’s first summit since he ascended to the throne in June, but the presidents of regional heavyweights Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela are not coming.

Sixteen leaders showed up on the first day, five more than last year’s summit in Panama.

Officials were hoping Cuban President Raul Castro could make a surprise appearance following a special invitation from Spain to attend his first ever Ibero-American talks since coming to power in 2006.

“President Castro is doing everything possible to come to this summit,” Mexican deputy foreign minister Vanessa Rubio told Radio Formula.

Ahead of the summit, prosecutors confirmed over the weekend that one of the 43 missing students was among charred remains found in a landfill and nearby river in Guerrero state.

The identification by an Austrian medical university bolstered suspicions that the students were slaughtered by a drug gang after they were delivered to the hitmen by corrupt police.

Hours before the summit, around 20 protesters stood outside the convention center wearing black shirts with letters that spelled out “42 still missing, Pena out.”

Pena Nieto could not escape the issue, already the biggest challenge of his two-year-old presidency, expressing thanks to Ibero-American partners for their “solidarity” on the eve of the summit.

– ‘Kind of failed state’ –

Analysts say the summit could help Pena Nieto gain international backing amid protests over his handling of the case, which has angered Mexicans fed up with a drug war that has left 100,000 people dead or missing since 2006.

Ibero-American leaders could “back his efforts to consolidate the rule of law,” said Arlene Ramirez Uresti, foreign relations professor at the Monterrey Institute of Technology.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala voiced support for Pena Nieto’s efforts to resolve the case.

“This can be a point of unity for Mexican society, uniting, as they have been doing, to find the truth and prevent that this type of event, which shames all of us, from being repeated,” Humala said.

Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica caused waves last week when he said the case showed that Mexico was a “kind of failed state” — words he quickly retracted after Mexico protested.

Pena Nieto, however, said the summit would focus on promoting innovation, culture and education in the region.

– Fading forum –

But the meeting has lost influence, with fewer and fewer leaders attending the gathering as various trade and diplomatic blocs have formed in the region.

At a pre-summit event with Pena Nieto, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for Ibero-American unity, saying the forum “is good for all of us, without exception.”

Adam Isacson, a regional security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, said Latin American nations have formed so many groups that the Ibero-American summit ranks low in their priorities.

“Judging from the rank of people going it clearly has less influence on the region than it used to,” he said.

“Maybe one reason too is that the opportunity with Spain and Portugal is less of a priority since the economies of both of those countries tanked in 2008 and 2009.”