Mexico | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Mexico received an upward trend arrow due to serious efforts by the government to reform the administration of justice, particularly law enforcement, as well as to ensure transparency in public transactions.


In 2001, the reform program of President Vicente Fox Quesada faced hard challenges posed by the legacy of more than seven decades of overwhelming political hegemony, including endemic corruption, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). As Fox led a broad good-government coalition anchored by his center-right National Action Party (PAN) on a quest to remake the country's political institutions and practices into those of a modern democratic state, unrealistic expectations held by supporters and critics alike proved to be one of his biggest headaches. Some significant reforms were enacted to fight the pervasive corruption that fuels Mexico's major social problems of poverty and crime, and that has allowed the country to become a primary headquarters of the world's drug cartels.

According a 2001 study by the Mexico chapter of Transparency International, some $2.3 billion-approximately one percent-of the country's economic production goes to officials in bribes, with the poorest families paying nearly 14 percent of their income in bribes. Public safety, and related problems of corruption and rights violations by Mexico's police and military, headed the list of still seemingly intractable difficulties that experts caution are likely to take a generation to solve, in part due to the large volumes of existing legislation that need to be reformed. Relations with a heavily split congress, the inability to reach a meaningful reform of immigration policy with the United States and the continued marginalization of Mexico's indigenous peoples, roughly ten percent of the population, added to concern about whether Fox could successfully achieve his reform goals.

Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1810 and established itself as a republic in 1822. Seven years after the Revolution of 1910, a new constitution was promulgated under which the United Mexican States became a federal republic consisting of 31 states and a federal district (Mexico City). Each state has elected governors and legislatures. The president is elected to a six-year term. A bicameral congress consists of a 128-member senate elected for six years, with at least one minority senator from each state, and a 500-member chamber of deputies elected for three years, 300 directly and 200 through proportional representation.

Since its founding in 1929, the PRI has dominated the country by means of its corporatist, authoritarian structure maintained through co-optation, patronage, corruption, and repression. The formal business of government has taken place mostly in secret and with little legal foundation.

In 1988, PRI standard-bearer Carlos Salinas de Gortari, won the presidential election through massive and systematic fraud. Most Mexicans believe Salinas actually lost to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who headed a coalition of leftist parties that later became the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Under Salinas, the toast of both the George Bush and Bill Clinton administrations in the United States, corruption reached unparalleled proportions, and a top antidrug official complained that Mexico had become a "narco-democracy," before fleeing to exile in the United States. Salinas conceded a few gubernatorial election victories to the PAN, which had supported his economic policies. In return the PAN dropped its demands for political reform and abandoned plans to establish a pro-democracy coalition with the PRD.

Until the outbreak of the Marxist-led Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas on New Year's Day 1994, it was assumed that Salinas's handpicked successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, would defeat Cardenas and PAN Congressman Diego Fernandez de Cevallos in the 1994 presidential election. The Zapatistas' demands for democracy and clean elections resonated throughout Mexico. Colosio was assassinated on March 23, 1994. Salinas substituted Zedillo, a 42-year-old U.S.-trained economist with little political experience, as the PRI candidate. Despite PRI hardliners' animosity toward the party's technocrats, the hardliners, popularly known as "dinosaurs," placed the government machinery-the enormous resources of the state as well as the broadcast media-firmly behind Zedillo.

On August 21, 1994, Zedillo won, with nearly 50 percent of the valid vote, and the PRI won overwhelming majorities in both houses of congress. Both the PAN and the PRD disputed the elections' legitimacy, and only PRI legislators in the chamber voted to affirm the results. The next month, the reform-minded PRI secretary-general was assassinated, his murder the result of high-stakes PRI infighting. Zedillo took office on December 1, 1994.

Under Zedillo, a trend that had started with Salinas, or even before, accelerated, and Mexico became the leading supplier of illegal drugs to the United States, accounting for two-thirds of the cocaine and 20 to 30 percent of the heroin entering the country.

In 1996, opposition parties of the left and right won important municipal elections in three states. Post electoral conflicts took place in several regions. In the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas, where many of Mexico's indigenous people live, political violence continued to be a fact of life. However, the elections left the PRI governing just two of Mexico's 12 largest cities.

In April 1996, the main political parties, with the exception of the PAN, agreed on reforms aimed at bringing about fairer elections. The reforms introduced direct elections for the mayoralty of Mexico City and abolished government control of the federal electoral institute.

Mexicans went to the polls several times in 1997 and 1998 under substantially improved conditions, which included increased public financing of political parties and guarantees of fairer access to television during elections. For the first time, in 1997 voters chose the mayor of Mexico City, electing PRD opposition leader Cardenas, rather than having the municipal chief appointed by the president. That year an opposition coalition made up of the PRD, the PAN, and two other parties took control of the lower house of congress following the July elections; and a consensus was reached whereby the presidencies of 61 house committees were allocated on an equitable basis. By year's end, the PAN held six governorships. Elections held in 1998 in several states for gubernatorial, legislative, and municipal posts showed an uneven ability of the opposition to build upon its successes in the state and federal elections. PRI candidates were able to win in contests that were not fixed, as the party won seven of ten gubernatorial contests.

In 1999, the PRI nominated, in first-ever open-party competition, Francisco Labastida, hailed by some as the politicians' return to the helm of a party ruled during the three previous administrations by technocrats. In September the PAN nominated Fox, governor of Guanajuato state, while Cardenas took leave of the Mexico City mayoralty and announced he would again lead the PRD's national ticket.

In 2000, the pragmatic Fox teamed up with the small Green Party to form the Alliance for Change; an effort to make common cause with the PRD was rebuffed by a wary Cardenas. Despite election-eve polls suggesting Fox would lose, on July 2, 2000, he won Mexico's presidency with 42.5 percent of the vote; former Interior Minister Labastida won 36 percent of the vote, and Cardenas just 16.6 percent. By nearly becoming the largest party in the lower house of congress, the PAN won enough state governorships to put the long-ruling PRI in danger of becoming a regional party. The poor showing by Cardenas suggested that support for the PRD, which had made electoral reform its standard, was collapsing as PRI hegemony disappeared. The PRD's congressional representation sank from a high of 116 to 52 following the June election; its consolation prize was winning the Mexico City mayoralty. However, the 2000 elections heralded an even more important role for the Mexican congress, in which no party commanded a majority in a body that less than a decade ago was regarded as a PRI rubber stamp.

Following his election, Fox selected an eclectic cabinet whose new faces signaled an end to the revolving door of bureaucrats in top positions and included leftist intellectuals, businessmen, and, as attorney general, a serving general-the latter choice bitterly opposed by human rights groups. Fox also announced plans to overhaul Mexico's notoriously corrupt and inefficient law enforcement agencies, breaking the political ties between the police and the presidency and removing the armed forces from the expanding internal security role assigned to them under Zedillo. In September two generals who have held important positions in the fight against insurgent groups and drug traffickers were arrested on drug charges, bringing to seven the number of generals prosecuted for their alleged involvement in the narcotics trade. Despite Mexico's booming economy, business leaders say soaring crime is costing them as much as ten percent of their profits.

In 2001, Fox's efforts to clean up Mexico's police and security forces won a significant vote of confidence in Washington, particularly as they were accompanied by serious efforts to attack kingpins of local drug cartels. However, the government's perceived slowness in stating its support for the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks appeared to temper somewhat the rosy U.S. assessments of Fox's rule. A law enacted in August on Indian rights failed to satisfy many indigenous rights activists or their critics, and even caused the Zapatistas to break off all contact with the government shortly after its approval by congress. Two major criticisms of the law were that it did not precisely define Indian group rights and that it limited the rights of native peoples to create new municipalities. On the other hand, in what rights advocates hailed as an important test of his government's human rights commitment, on November 27 Fox announced the appointment a special prosecutor to investigate up to 532 forced disappearances of leftist militants. Many were in federal custody before they disappeared, during the 1970s, and human rights advocates say the clandestine killings may have been orchestrated by two former presidents from the PRI. In December, Ernesto Fonseca Carillo, convicted for the 1985 murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, was aquitted on drug-trafficking charges, although he remained in prison for the killing.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mexicans can choose their government democratically. In 2001, opposition parties made important gains in state and municipal contests in elections that were generally considered to be free and fair. In an important test case, in October 2001, the federal electoral tribunal overturned the victory of the ruling PAN candidate in Ciudad Juarez, along the U.S. border, saying that the party had improperly used its position of power to influence the vote. In November, Lazaro Cardenas, the third-generation heir to a populist Mexican dynasty, led the PRD to victory in the governor's race in Michoacan state, despite an ongoing power struggle within the leftist party. Although all parties vying in the contest reportedly engaged in shady electoral practices ranging from election-day distribution of foodstuffs and outright vote buying, the Alianza Civica good- government group said the irregularities were insufficient to taint the outcome of the vote. That same month, the long-ruling PRI, out of power for the first time in more than seven decades, attempted a renewal of sorts by promising 80 percent of party jobs to women and those under the age of 30. In July, the PAN easily won the governor's race in the border state of Baja California, although the PRI wrested the mayoralty of Chihuahua from the PAN, and nearly beat the party in Ciudad Juarez, as well as scoring important successes in the states of Durango and Zacatecas. In October, the PRI won a majority of local municipal and congressional races in the southern state of Chiapas.

In 2001, President Vicente Fox Quesada promised a complete overhaul of Mexico's corrupt prison system and the adherence to a Mexican supreme court ruling that removed the last barriers for extraditing Mexicans to the United States to stand trial. Throughout the latter years of PRI rule, the judicial system was notoriously weak, politicized, and riddled with the corruption infecting all official bodies. In most rural areas, respect for laws by official agencies is still tenuous at best, particularly in towns and villages that receive large influxes of dollars from relatives involved in narcotics trafficking in the United States. Lower courts and law enforcement in general are undermined by widespread bribery, despite some early, significant efforts by the Fox government for reform. Mexico serves as a transit point for some 66 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, as well as being a producer of a significant amount of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines.

Constitutional guarantees regarding political and civic organizations are generally respected in the urban north and central parts of the country. Political and civic expression, however, is restricted throughout rural Mexico, in poor urban areas, and in poor southern states where repressive measures against the left-wing PRD and peasant and indigenous groups are still a serious problem. Civil society participation has grown large in recent years: human rights, pro-democracy, women's, and environmental groups are active. However, in December, 2001, Amnesty International issued a report that underlined the threats human rights activists still face from the government and the military, saying that while their jobs remain some of the most dangerous in the country, Fox had yet to institute measures that would halt the myriad abuses. "Activists are the victims of smear campaigns and fabricated accusations aimed at undermining their credibility and legitimacy," Amnesty reported, "their phones are tapped and their communications intercepted; they receive death threats and constant intimidation." The complaint followed the October 18, 2001, murder of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa, whose clients included high-profile environmentalists tortured by the military and sympathizers with the Zapatistas.

Mexico's soaring crime rate and lack of effective law enforcement, characterized by an entrenched culture of bribery and disrespect for the law, are serious barriers to economic development. In early 2001, Fox announced a crusade to clean up Mexico's law enforcement system, urging Mexicans to report common crimes and announcing a citizen program to make the police more accountable by making their files more accessible to the public. Ten percent of all extortive kidnappings in Mexico, which ranks second only to Colombia in the greatest number of attacks in Latin America, are believed to be carried out by former or serving police officers. In July 2001, Amnesty International warned that torture remains a widespread practice "at all levels of Mexico's federal, state and municipal system. . . . What is worse, evidence shows that torture is still used to extract confessions and secure convictions in the context of poorly developed and ineffective criminal and forensic investigation services."

Despite reforms undertaken or promised by the Fox administration, opinion polls show that most Mexicans do not think that the Mexican police are capable of dealing with the country's spiraling crime rate. Low standards of performance by Mexican law enforcement agencies can be traced, in part, to the fact that Mexican police officers frequently lack essential elements for their work, such as bulletproof vests, serviceable weapons, and adequate training. In recent years, dozens of law enforcement agents have died fighting the notorious Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel.

During the outbreak of the still-simmering Chiapas rebellion, Mexico's semi-autonomous military was responsible for widespread human rights violations. The growing role of the military in internal security-ostensibly to combat domestic terrorism, drug trafficking, and street crime-has contributed to grave human rights problems, particularly in rural areas. Because Mexico has no foreign enemies, the military serves largely as an auxiliary police force, and in places like the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, army counterinsurgency units moving through local civilian populations like an occupying force continue to cause numerous rights violations. In late 1998, a small group of military officers staged a protest against the military court system and demanded the abolition of the exclusively military legal jurisdiction, which, in 2001, human rights groups continued to report, also exacerbates a widespread culture of impunity in rights prosecutions. The military justice system not only allows the military to restrict prosecution of members accused of rights violations to its courts, but in all cases tight restrictions are imposed on public access to information gleaned through subsequent investigation of the charges. In several recent documented cases, the army has planted evidence to justify illegal arrests, tortured suspects, failed to properly investigate alleged abuses, and obstructed civilian authorities, while producing unreliable information about the investigations.

Throughout 2001, there were credible reports about the continuing close links between drug traffickers and some members of the armed forces, contradicting official versions-including those espoused by U.S. officials-that have sought to portray the military as less prone to corruption and drug-cartel influence than civilian law enforcement is. In December 2001, six former members of an elite airborne unit were arrested and accused of protecting one of Mexico's most-wanted drug suspects.

The media, while mostly private, largely depend on the government for advertising revenue. In 2000, Fox pledged to end the PRI practice of buying favorable stories and vowed to respect the media's independence. Most observers agree that in 2001, the practice of paying reporters for favorable coverage appeared to be on the wane. Throughout the year, the freer and more critical news coverage afforded by the media was much in evidence, with Fox himself often the target of satirical cartoons and unflattering commentary by the reformed news outlets. Despite the improvements, however, violent attacks against journalists, including murder, are common, with reporters investigating police issues, narcotics trafficking, and public corruption at particular risk. Radio and television stations still operate under a law that allows the government to grant broadcast licenses at its discretion, rather than the basis of professional criteria.

In 1992 the constitution was amended to restore the legal status of the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions. Priests and nuns were allowed to vote for the first time in nearly 80 years. Nonetheless, activist priests promoting the rights of Indians and the poor, particularly in southern states, remain subject to threats and intimidation by conservative landowners and local PRI bosses.

Mexico is a source country for trafficked persons to the United States, Canada, and Japan, and a transit country for persons from various places, especially Central America and China. There is an increasing number of persons from Brazil and Eastern Europe transiting through Mexico, some of whom are Salvadorans and Guatemalans, especially children, who are trafficked into Mexico for prostitution, particularly on the southern border. In his first year in office, Fox attempted to engage the United States on a wide range of border issues, including the trafficking of persons, and has tightened up security along the porous frontier shared with Guatemala. Internal trafficking is also a problem.

The maquiladora regime of export-only production facilities has created substantial abuse of worker rights. Most maquiladora workers are young, uneducated women who accept lower pay more readily, with annual labor turnover averaging between 200 and 300 percent. They have no medical insurance, holidays, or profit sharing, and female employees are frequently the targets of sexual harassment and abuse. The companies also discriminate against pregnant women in order to avoid having to give them maternity leave. The state of neglect of these women is highlighted by the fact that during an eight-year period ending in 2001, as many as 67 were killed in sex crimes in the Ciudad Juarez area, while by the end of 2001 the number of missing was some 150. The government consistently fails to enforce child labor laws; some 4.5 million children under 14 years of age-12 percent of the child population-have jobs in Mexico.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse remain serious problems in Mexico, although the Fox government has pledged to fight a problem that some experts say affects between five and seven of every ten Mexican women. Outside the confines of a few cosmopolitan urban areas and in indigenous regions in the south, violence against and harassment of gays and lesbians are also serious problems; there are credible reports of extortion and beatings by police. In August 2000, a federal appeals court in San Francisco, California, granted a gay Mexican transvestite asylum in the United States, after saying he was a member of a particular "social group" persecuted in his homeland.

Dozens of labor and peasant leaders have been killed in recent years in ongoing land disputes, particularly in the southern states, where Indians constitute close to half the population. Most of Mexico's ten million Native Americans live in a situation of de facto apartheid, relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages lacking roads, running water, schools, and telephones. Both those who live in urban areas and those in the countryside face great pressure to abandon their customs, languages, and values, and access to their lands and natural resources is under constant attack. Upon taking office, Fox pledged to answer indigenous demands by overseeing a series of constitutional reforms that were designed to guarantee Indian rights. However, in December 2000, he had to back down from a plan to relocate poor Indians in newly created towns, after critics called it tantamount to the "ethnocide" perpetrated on indigenous peoples by Spanish settlers, who had herded them into villages where they were more easily exploited and taxed. Enactment in 2001 of the Indian rights law, which was itself criticized by Fox, a former proponent, led the president to suggest that still another measure might need to be considered by congress in 2002.