MEXICO CITY (AP) — Protesters opposed to new President Enrique Pena Nieto's rule clashed with tear gas-wielding police outside Mexico's Congress early Saturday just hours before he was to take the oath of office and return the country's old guard to power.
Pena Nieto already took over at midnight in a symbolic ceremony after campaigning as the new face of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, repentant and reconstructed after being voted out of the presidency in 2000. The PRI ruled for 71 years with a mix of populist handouts, graft and rigged elections.
Hundreds of protesters banged on the tall steel security barriers around Congress, threw rocks, bottle rockets and firecrackers at police and yelled "Mexico without PRI!" Police responded by spraying tear gas from a truck to disperse the crowd and used fire extinguishers on flames from Molotov cocktails. The air was filled with smoke and shouts as officers, their faces streaming with tears from the gas, ordered the crowds to get back.
One officer was seen being taken for medical treatment for injuries to his face.
Pena Nieto has promised to govern democratically with transparency. But his first moves even before the inauguration showed a solid link to the past.
In announcing his Cabinet on Friday, he turned to the old guard as well as new technocrats to run his administration.
"I don't think there is any such thing as a 'new PRI,'" said Rodrigo Aguilera, the Mexico analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. "There is a new generation of PRI members, but they don't represent any fundamentally different outlook."
Pena Nieto assumed office in the early seconds of Saturday during a brief ceremony with outgoing President Felipe Calderon at Mexico's historic National Palace. He was to take the formal oath of office later in the day.
The swearing-in ceremony at Congress and then a speech at the National Palace were set to be low on pomp and high on security as Calderon made a smooth transition his goal. Six years ago, Calderon's security unit literally had to muscle him past blockades and protesters to get him into Congress so he could take the oath of office after a razor-thin, disputed victory over a leftist candidate.
Demonstrations were likely outside Congress this time as well and at the city's key monuments. But the country's main leftist party pledged not to swarm the podium this time, and it planned no mass protests like those that paralyzed central Mexico City six years ago.
Mexicans for the most part seemed more focused on the end-of-the-month pay day and Christmas shopping than the arrival of a new president. Divided and ambivalent, many people are wary of a return to the old days, but they're also weary of Calderon's National Action Party and the spike in violence during his six-year attack on organized crime, which has had a toll of 60,000 deaths by some estimates.
Government worker Antonio Vidal, 37, was confident his country wouldn't see much of the PRI of old.
"We've invested heavily in our democracy," he said. "It's very closely watched by civil society, so I don't think the PRI can return to their ways of fraud."
Alma Rosa Martinez, a 40-year-old real estate agent, said she had a very bad feeling.
"It took 70 years to kick them out of power," she said. "How long will it take to kick them out again?"
Pena Nieto has pledged to make economic growth and job creation the centerpiece of his administration, with campaign manager and long-time confidant Luis Videgaray the point person. Videgaray, a 44-year-old economist with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will lead the treasury department.
Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, a 48-year-old former state governor who is known as a political operator and deal maker, has been named secretary of the interior, a post that will play a key role in security matters.
A bill proposed by Pena Nieto would gather the police and security apparatus under the control of the Interior Department and create a new national anti-corruption commission. Those changes are expected to pass Congress next week.
Pena Nieto has also promised to push for reforms that could bring major new private investment into Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the crucial but struggling state-owned oil industry. Such changes that have been blocked for decades by nationalist suspicion of foreign meddling in the oil business.
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.