Mexico | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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The year 2004 marked a resurgence of hard-line sectors of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for more than seven decades, as the PRI swept to power in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Baja California and took the mayoralty in Tijuana by running as its candidate a highly controversial gambling tycoon linked in the press to drug lords. President Vicente Fox's National Action Party (PAN) continued to fight, mostly unsuccessfully, an electoral and parliamentary rearguard action, hampered by public discontent with poverty, corruption, and crime that appeared to finally dent the chief of state's own popularity. Meanwhile, attention focused increasingly on the 2006 presidential elections, with the mayor of Mexico City the apparent front-runner throughout 2004.

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). From its founding in 1929 until 2000, the PRI dominated the country by means of its corporatist, authoritarian structure, which was maintained through patronage, corruption, and repression. The formal business of government took place mostly in secret and with little legal foundation.

In 1999, the PRI nominated, in first-ever open-party competition, former interior minister Francisco Labastida, hailed by some as the politician's return to the helm of a party ruled during the three previous administrations by technocrats. In September, the PAN nominated Fox, governor of Guanajuato. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas took leave of the Mexico City mayoralty and announced he would again lead the national ticket of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Despite election-eve polls suggesting Fox would lose, on July 2, 2000, he won Mexico's presidency with 42.5 percent of the vote. Labastida won 36 percent, and Cardenas, just 16.6 percent. By becoming almost the largest party in the lower house of congress, the PAN won enough state governorships to put the long-ruling PRI in danger, momentarily at least, of becoming a regional party.

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 businessmen and leftist intellectuals. However, his choice for attorney general, a serving general, was bitterly opposed by human rights groups. Fox announced plans to overhaul the notoriously corrupt and inefficient law enforcement agencies, breaking political ties between the police and the presidency. In his inaugural address, Fox pledged to make Mexico an international leader in human rights.

As Fox reached the halfway mark of his six-year presidency in 2003, his greatest achievements remained having bested the long-ruling PRI in the 2000 presidential contest and decapitating the country's vicious drug cartels. The most popular decision of his presidency - to oppose the U.S.-led Iraq war - nonetheless did little to enhance his party's standing with the electorate. Washington's refusal to engage Fox on migration issues, despite early assurances that it would, deprived the president of a policy win on the most important issue in U.S.-Mexico bilateral relations.

Most Mexicans saw little progress in addressing the problems of poverty, corruption, crime, and unemployment that the charismatic rancher-politician had promised to fix. Elections held in July 2003, which shook up Mexico's congress in the first major federal election in three years, not only were the most expensive in recent memory, but also yielded a record low voter turnout. The results of the vote, in which the PAN lost the governorship in the prosperous industrial state of Nuevo Leon, long a party stronghold, reaffirmed the dominant roles of opposition parties in both houses of congress as well as increased the PRI's representation in many state legislatures and governorships. The PAN's congressional vote dropped from 38 percent in 2000 to 30.5 percent, while the PRI won 38 percent and the PRD received 18 percent. The PRD not only increased its own congressional representation, but also consolidated its hold on Mexico City, the Western Hemisphere's largest urban area, winning the presidency of 14 of the city's 16 boroughs.

Despite Fox's post-election promises to work harder to collaborate with the opposition on a reform agenda, the PAN's bickering with the president over indigenous rights and fiscal reform, combined with jockeying within the unreformed PRI for the party's 2006 presidential nomination, made that possibility seem increasingly remote. By 2004, a perceived power vacuum - brought about in part by a long-standing partisan logjam in congress - resulted in greater attention to the next presidential contest, even though it was still two years away. Through much of the year, popular Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD appeared to be the runaway front-runner for the 2006 elections, despite having been tainted by several corruption scandals involving top aides. In June and July, Fox faced several high-level resignations from his government in a crisis that was only resolved when his wife publicly denied planning to run to replace him in 2006. In addition, Fox had to fend off charges that he was behind efforts to impeach the mayor of Mexico City in a legal dispute involving an obscure land case that the leftist opposition party called "a technical coup d'etat."

During 2004, 14 state-level elections were held, including 10 gubernatorial races, with a major surprise in the near-loss by the PRI of the governorship of Veracruz, long a party stronghold. Legal challenges to how gubernatorial contests in Oaxaca and Veracruz and the mayoral election in Tijuana were conducted were issued and subsequently denied, with the three victors taking their posts on December 1. In June, half a million people protested in Mexico City against rampant kidnappings and crime in general. In November, anger over the seemingly unstoppable crime wave gripping much of the country appeared to have been at least partly responsible for the lynching by an angry mob of three federal police officers in Mexico City in November.

In October, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court to review a case seeking to charge former president Luis Echeverria (1970 - 1976) and 13 other former government officials with genocide for a 1971 student massacre was hailed by rights and legal experts as a significant step towards accountability for a "dirty war" against leftist dissidents in which no public officials were ever convicted. It was the first time a former president of Mexico had been charged with any crime.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mexicans can choose their government democratically. In four consecutive elections, opposition parties made gains in state and municipal contests in elections that were generally considered to be free and fair. The president is elected to a six-year term and cannot be reelected. A bicameral congress consists of the 128-member Senate elected for six years, with at least one minority senator from each state, and the 500-member Chamber of Deputies elected for three years, 300 directly and 200 through proportional representation. Members of Congress are also barred from reelection. Each state has an elected governor and legislature.

A series of high-profile cases of prominent politicians caught on videotape while taking illegal cash earlier in the year had led the political parties to pledge support for an overhaul of elections rules in order to limit corruption. However, there continued to be credible reports of misuse of power and resources by incumbent parties to favor their candidates in the 2004 elections, with numerous complaints lodged with Mexico's Special Prosecutor for Electoral Crimes.

According to a recent study by the Mexico chapter of Transparency International, some $2.3 billion (approximately 1 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. Corruption at the state-owned petroleum giant Pemex alone is estimated to cost the company more than $1 billion a year. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that between $25 billion and $30 billion of illegal drug money is laundered each year in Mexico and says that the country's financial, political, military, and judicial institutions facilitate those crimes. In November 2003, the Mexican Senate approved a legislative package designed to prevent and detect terrorist financing by clamping stricter reporting requirements on financial institutions and setting down strict penalties for violations of those rules. Mexico was ranked 64 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The media, while mostly private, largely depend on the government for advertising revenue. In 2000, President Vicente Fox Quesada pledged to end the PRI practice of buying favorable stories and vowed to respect media independence, a promise that he has largely kept. Reporters investigating police issues, narcotics trafficking, and public corruption remain at particular risk, and in 2004, five journalists were killed. In 2002, Mexico enacted its first freedom of information law, which expressly prohibits the government from withholding for any reason information about crimes against humanity or gross human rights violations; the law went into effect in June 2003. The government does not restrict Internet access, which is widely available across the nation, although much less so among the poor and the elderly, because of economic constraints or lack of computer literacy.

The constitution provides for religious freedom and in practice the government generally respects this right. However, the free practice of religion is limited in some areas of the country's south, particularly in Chiapas state, and there are frequent reports of harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses. In order to operate legally, religious associations must register with the Under Secretariat of Religious Affairs of the Federal Secretariat (SSAR), although the registration process has been routine. The constitution was amended in 1992 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. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Constitutional guarantees regarding political and civic organizations are generally respected in the urbanized northern 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. Civil society participation has grown in recent years; human rights, pro-democracy, women's, and environmental groups are active. In June 2003, Fox signed legislation that banned all forms of discrimination, including those based on ethnic origin, gender, age, or religion.

The justice system is based on the cumbersome nineteenth-century Napoleonic code, in which judges decide cases by reading documentary evidence. There is virtually no body of law governing juvenile justice. In most rural areas, respect for laws by official agencies is still tenuous at best. Lower courts and law enforcement in general are undermined by widespread bribery, despite efforts by the Fox administration at reform. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and abuse of prisoners persist in many areas, although somewhat less so than just a decade ago. In November 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the "disappearances" of leftist activists in the 1960s and 1970s were kidnappings not subject to the statute of limitations. The decision paved the way for the arrest of former senior officials implicated in the rights crimes. In 2004, the court itself became the object of controversy when it was revealed that its head and Fox had met secretly at a time when the president's rival, Lopez Obrador, was being threatened with dismissal from office for disobeying a questionable lower court order.

In Mexico City, approximately 80 percent of crimes go unreported because the notoriously underpaid police are viewed as either inept or in league with the wrongdoers; only about 6 percent of reported crimes are solved. Ten percent of all extortive kidnappings in Mexico are believed to be carried out by former or serving police officers. In early 2001, Fox announced a crusade to clean up the 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. In 2002, the mayor of Mexico City announced the hiring of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani as a security consultant, a move questioned by rights activists familiar with the New York City Police Department's record during the 1990s. Two years later, Giuliani's recommendations on "zero tolerance" measures, panic buttons on city buses, and surveillance cameras in high-crime areas had been adopted.

Because Mexico has no foreign enemies, the military, which operates largely beyond public scrutiny, serves mainly as an auxiliary police force and acts as the country's main antinarcotics force. In places such as the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, army counterinsurgency units, moving through local civilian populations like an occupying force, continue to cause numerous rights violations. Human rights groups say more than 100 people have "disappeared," and hundreds more tortured, by the Mexican army, in the conflict-ridden state of Guerrero in the past decade. The military justice system allows for soldiers accused of rights violations to be tried in secret, and the outcomes of their trials are only occasionally made public. In 2004, the role of a vicious northern Mexico gang known as the Zetas - former Mexican army commandos in league with the drug traffickers they were trained to capture - received much media attention.

Although civil-military relations are in a state of flux, presidential authority over the armed forces is extensive. However, in a February 19, 2004, Army Day address, Defense Secretary General Gerardo Vega Garcia broke with long-standing tradition by directly speaking about domestic politics, at a time when civilian authorities were trying to exercise greater oversight of the secretive armed forces.

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 Native Americans are relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages lacking roads, running water, schools, and telephones. Indian groups said that a 2001 constitutional reform designed to strengthen their rights fell far short of addressing their concerns.

The maquiladoras (export-processing zones) have fostered substantial abuses of workers' rights. Most maquiladora workers are young, uneducated women who accept lower pay more readily, with annual labor turnover averaging between 200 and 300 percent. Workers have no medical insurance, paid holidays, or profit sharing, and female employees are frequently the targets of sexual harassment and abuse.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse remain serious problems, although the Fox government has pledged to fight a problem that some experts say affects 50 to 70 percent of women. 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. Internal trafficking is also a problem. In 2004, Amalia Garcia of the PRD won the governorship of Zacatecas, becoming the first democratically elected woman governor in Mexican history.