Update from Mexico

By Paloma Corcuera

AMLO supporters fill the Toluca Plaza in Mexico. (Photo by Eneas de Troya).

On July 1st we elected our future president, 9 state governors, 128 senators, and 500 lower house representatives. This election was historic not only because of the number of local and federal positions that were at stake, but also because of the result. For most of the positions, Mexicans overwhelmingly elected representatives of a new political party: MORENA.

Even though MORENA was registered as a political party only 3 years ago, today it is the most powerful political party in Mexico. This is due to the general disappointment Mexicans feel about the more established political parties due to their numerous corruption scandals, a lack of efficient institutions, blatant inequality, increasing human rights abuses, and a sense of distrust towards the State in general.

MORENA, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who founded the political party and won the presidential elections by a whopping margin, got the diagnosis right. He tapped into the anger and annoyance of the Mexican population, which feels that the government governs only for few and mostly to enrich themselves. MORENA gave hope by promising a common good approach that would prioritize the more than 50 million poor people who live in Mexico. During his campaign (which is his third, as he lost the past two elections), AMLO claims to have visited every municipality in Mexico; he listened to concerns and promised change.

AMLO’s opposition is concerned that he is over-promising and that his proposals lack implementation plans and details. Some critics fear that even though he got the diagnosis right, his policies won’t bring about solutions and that he won’t be able to materialize the promises he has made. But also, let’s face it, a lot of them worry they will lose their privileged citizen status. AMLO is viewed by most of his opposition as a populist authoritarian threat.

Now let´s take a step back for a second. Let me describe the current situation of my country. Mexico is suffering from an insecurity crisis: high levels of violence combined with high levels of impunity and a generalized lack of trust in institutions. Additionally, the levels of inequality in Mexico are terribly high and corruption scandals occur on a regular basis.

The current homicide rate in Mexico is 22.5 for every 100,000 people. This compares to 89 in Venezuela, 60 in El Salvador, 24 in Colombia, or 3.3 in Chile. This number started steadily increasing in Mexico since the government of Felipe Calderón declared a war on drugs in 2006. Since then, Mexico has been combating drug organizations with the army. This strategy has changed the dynamics of the drug industry but has not been able to reduce the supply of drugs. Big cartels have broken down into smaller and more violent ones – due to the approach of capturing the heads of the organizations – but as the demand in the United States continues to grow, the cartels always find a way to profit. Additionally, this intensified prohibition creates a riskier environment that demands higher prices, which result in an even more profitable market.

Felipe Calderón speaks in London in 2012. (Photo courtesy of CONADE).

While this strategy has failed massively, Mexico is immersed in a human rights crisis. According to Human Rights Watch, there are alarmingly high rates of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture. Moreover, crimes are under-prosecuted in Mexico, both because of a lack of trust in institutions that result in few crimes being reported but also because this lack of trust is based on the reality that institutions are often incapable of penalizing criminals.

Inequality is another big concern in Mexico, and feeds the sense of discomfort of the majority of the population. Around 43% of Mexicans live in poverty, and this number is on the rise. At the same time, the fortune of the richest 16 Mexicans grows in size five times a year. On the corruption front, it is hard to say if corruption has actually been increasing or if it is just more visible, but there is no denying that it remains one of Mexico’s largest problems.

While AMLO did not talk much about his approach to the insecurity crisis during his campaign, he did refer to his proposals to reduce inequality, poverty, and eliminate corruption.

Now, let’s talk about what has been happening since the election. AMLO received 53.3% of the vote, even more than the polls originally reported (Oraculus: 48% and Bloomberg: 51%). From the nine states that elected governors, five elected MORENA representatives. The coalition led by MORENA (which includes a conservative political party fighting against rights like access to abortion or same sex marriage) attained the majority in both houses and in 17 of the 32 local congresses.

MORENA and AMLO have a historical opportunity to guide the country towards social progress, but there is also a real risk that this amount of power will be used in an authoritarian manner. AMLO has been criticized multiple times during his campaign and after being elected for contradicting himself. For example, he says he will eradicate corruption but has allied with some very corrupt actors including Elba Esther Gordillo, one of the few Mexicans arrested on corruption charges (whose arrest coincided with the beginning of President Peña’s regime and was recently freed due to lack of evidence after five years in prison, coinciding with an alliance with AMLO), and Manuel Barlett, responsible for the electoral fraud of 1988 that favored Salinas, arguably one of the most hated Mexican presidents.

When asked how he will eradicate corruption in Mexico, AMLO responds he will do so by setting an example. Critics argue that this is naïve and that in order to actually end corruption, institutions must be strengthened to reduce the levels of impunity (which is among the highest in the world). Recently these questions on corruption have intensified, as the electoral institution fined MORENA for failing to explain the origin and destination of resources that were deposited into a trust fund. Instead of recognizing his party’s mistake, AMLO called the fine “vile and vindictive”. This attitude calls into question the seriousness of his commitment to end corruption.

Along the same lines, an independent district attorney would be instrumental in reducing impunity, corruption, and human rights abuses. Civil society has been demanding one without success. It is very worrisome that AMLO has not pronounced his support for this. Instead, he has said he will propose three alternatives and that Congress will be able to choose one of them. This obviously would not result in an independent district attorney but in a position appointed by the president, who, even if his three alternatives are excellent choices, would not be able to prosecute autonomously or free from political pressure.

AMLO casts his vote in the 2012 election. (Photo by Eneas de Troya).

There are also concerns about where AMLO will get the funds to implement all of his proposed policies, as he has promised not to raise taxes and only implement fiscally neutral policies. He states that he will fund all of his policies with money saved from ending corruption and the austerity program (the reduction of bureaucrats’ salaries, including his by more than half).

On the other hand, there is finally hope to reach an end to the devastating war on drugs in Mexico. Even though this was not one of the main topics during his campaign (probably because of the controversial nature of the subject), the only proposal provided regarding national security was one that would have intensified the militarization strategy. AMLO’s proposal was to create a joint force between the military and the police and use only this force to combat crime. Human rights activists, many academics, and members of civil organizations pronounced themselves against this, arguing that it would not solve the problem and would only make matters worse.  Alfonso Durazo, the future government’s secretary of security, has recently stated that this plan will not be implemented (at least not in the short term), and that the creation of a Public Security Department (SSP) will be the priority instead. This department would be formed by a civil police force in charge of combating crime. Durazo has also stated that the military forces would return to their barracks in the next three years, restoring the responsibility of public security to civil police forces.

Additionally, Olga Sanchez Cordero, the proposed Secretary of the interior, has been very vocal about the strategy that AMLO’s government will pursue to start a peace process with the objective of reducing violence and impunity. Sanchez Cordero understands both the causes and the vicious cycle that the militarization strategy has created, and is putting forward a drastic change in direction.  This includes legalization of marijuana, decriminalization of opium poppy production, amnesty for lower tier crimes, and new trainings for police forces aimed at demilitarizing the country and enforcing human rights.

Even though there is wide agreement that this strategy would stop the trend of increasing violence, there is still a lot of pushback by proponents of militarization and prohibitionist strategies historically led by the United States government. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said “[…] I can say that we would not support the legalization of all drugs anywhere and certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that would allow more drugs to come into this country.” The United States government has historically had great influence in Mexican policy, so we have to wait and see how this plays out.

Inequality was one of the central topics in AMLO´s campaign. For years, AMLO has been blaming what he calls the “power mafia” (la mafia del poder) for the lack of democratic institutions and the high levels of poverty. As I mentioned above, inequality is a very big problem in Mexico with some municipalities enjoying one of the highest Human Development Index similar to Norway’s and others comparing to Liberia or Congo. In order to reduce inequality, AMLO is aiming to eradicate corruption and privileges while reducing public employees’ salaries, increasing minimum wage and pensions, providing scholarships, and increasing the number of universities by 100. The achievability of this last idea is also doubtful because of the huge cost, but a smaller number might be realistic and hopefully a more young people would be able to attend university (today, only 3 out of 10 do so).

A young pro MORENA skater in Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas de Troya).

Another contradiction that has been criticized is that political parties were not included in AMLO’s austerity program. In Mexico, political parties receive exorbitant amounts of public money. This administration will receive 4,700 million pesos (more or less 250 million U.S. dollars) even though there will be no elections. MORENA would receive more money than any other political party due to the substantial majority achieved in the past elections. It is incongruent that this budget is excluded from the austerity program. Recently, taking a step in the right direction, some congress representatives of the political party proposed to halve the budget allotted to political parties.

In terms of the relationship with the United States government, in a recent exchange with Donald Trump, AMLO agreed that the priorities of the relationship of their governments will be trade, economic development, migration, and security. AMLO has promised to develop a more prosperous Mexico in order to deter the need for migration to the United States. He has talked about increasing the minimum wage. This would also increase the probability of reaching a trade agreement with Canada and the United States as these countries have been arguing that the salary differential is too high and harms their economies. Trump stated in a letter that he would like to see a NAFTA agreement as soon as possible, but also threatened that if this doesn’t happen soon he will have to find a different path. This threat implies that Mexico and Canada would have to accept an agreement that they don’t feel comfortable with. Again, we can just wait and see how the negotiations evolve with this change of priorities of the Mexican government.

The United States government has been pressuring the Mexican government for decades to stop Central American migrants at the Mexican border before they travel to the U.S. border. Mexico has engaged in horrible practices like increasing the speed of the train that migrants use to travel north, effectively making the trip more deadly. Mexico should start by treating migrants in transit the same way Mexico demands migrants be treated in the United States.

In terms of security, as I have stated above, I believe that there will be huge disagreements between both countries due to the conflicting drug policy approaches.

On energy policy, AMLO has proposed to build two new oil refineries, arguing that Mexico should be able to produce its own gasoline and end the dynamic of exporting oil and importing gasoline. Environmentalists are naturally against this because they believe we should be moving away from the dependence on fossil fuels. Additionally, there are concerns about the economic feasibility of these investments. Critics believe that the refineries will cost a lot more than what AMLO is budgeting. On the other hand, he has said he will also invest in renewable energies and that he will prioritize community need above the investor’s, which would be a shift from the current administration’s approach.

It is undeniable that there are plenty of proposed policies that mark a positive change for Mexico towards a more peaceful and equal country. Nonetheless, there are also many contradictions and a real risk of authoritarian tendencies due to the mass representation of MORENA. As for the civil society, let’s hope for the best, stay informed, and continue to provide constructive criticism.


PALOMA CORCUERA studied economics at Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City, and earned a Master of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Today she conducts macroeconomic analysis and teaches at the Economics Department of the Universidad Iberoamericana, Mexico City. Follow her on Twitter @palcorcuera.




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