If every government has a defining moment, that of Mexico’s new administration may have come this month when authorities arrested the head of the teachers’ union and put her behind bars without bail.
For decades, Elba Esther Gordillo, wore her power on her sleeve – one inevitably coutured by a leading European fashion house.
Now she faces embezzlement charges after it is alleged finance-ministry sleuths discovered payments using union funds to cover plastic surgery and luxury shopping
Until the centrist administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, president, made its move against her last week, many people considered her an untouchable symbol of union power, and a barrier to reform in Mexico.
“It was a brave and a powerful thing to do,” says Carlos Elizondo, a professor at Mexico City’s Cide, a higher education institution. “And it leaves Peña Nieto with enormous leadership.”
As Mr Peña Nieto, the 46-year-old former state governor, this week examines his first 100 days in office, he can reflect on what most experts describe as the most dynamic start to a Mexican presidency that anyone can remember.
“The last 100 days have been a game-changer,” says Juan Pardinas, director-general of the Mexican Competitiveness Institute (Imco), a think-tank. “It’s suddenly exciting to be in Mexico.”
The game-changer tag comes thanks to reforms that Mr Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have already pushed through, in what, for years, has been a fractious congress.
First, even before he took office on December 1, came a labour reform, which economists expect to inject dynamism into the economy. Then came a law that forces transparency on to the often obscure world of state and municipal finances.
Most recently, Mr Peña Nieto passed an education reform that devolves power accumulated by Ms Gordillo and her union to the federal government. As Mr Peña Nieto said at the time, “this constitutional reform underlines the authority of the state over national education policy”.
The legislative victories have heightened hopes, in particular among international investors, that Mr Peña Nieto may be able to turn Latin America’s second-largest economy into one of the world’s brightest emerging markets.
The forthcoming agenda includes a critical reform to increase the government’s low tax take; and an energy reform that could create huge investment opportunities for the private sector in the state-controlled oil and gas sector.
Meanwhile, as early as next week, the government is likely to send a bill to congress that would shake up the telecoms and television sectors. The idea, to create more competition in both areas, could have significant consequences for some of Mexico’s biggest corporate figures, including Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.
Experts say that much of this early success has been possible because unlike previous PRI presidents, Mr Peña Nieto has not had to spend the precious first months sorting out the mess left by his predecessors.
Thanks to Mexico’s prudent handling of the public finances, which the previous two centre-right National Action Party (PAN) governments have helped to turn into something of a trademark, Mr Peña Nieto has been able to focus on the future.
But commentators also say that some of Mr Peña Nieto’s success so far is due to his political acumen. Within 24 hours of donning the presidential sash, he convinced the heads of all the main political parties to sign the “Pact for Mexico”, a document that timetables 95 reform pledges.
Last weekend, his political skills were on display again as he manoeuvred at the PRI’s national assembly to change internal statutes blocking party members from voting on the VAT issue and on modernising the energy sector.
In the process, PRI delegates appointed Mr Peña Nieto head of the party’s permanent political commission – a move that places the president at the centre of the party’s main decision-making body.
“Peña Nieto has proved his political discipline and ability,” says Mr Elizondo. “He is now going to have a huge influence within his party.”
There are still many challenges ahead, not least that of reducing violence from the conflict with drugs cartels. Alejandro Hope, a security expert at Imco, points out that even if the murder rate continues to fall 8 per cent a year, as it did in 2012, the death toll would still be an alarming 80,000 murders by the end of Mr Peña Nieto’s six years in office.
But for now, and with the hope of more economic reforms to come, Mr Peña Nieto’s start has sparked an unusually upbeat atmosphere in Mexico. As Mr Pardinas admits, “the country probably needs to gain some sobriety to see what Peña Nieto is really about but it sure feels good to be merry”.
Get alerts on Americas politics & policy when a new story is published