Mexico | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2006

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Although he made government more honest and transparent and championed democracy, in 2005 Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada's failure to persuade the United States to move on immigration reform and a dramatic upsurge in drug-related violence in Mexico's northern states tarnished Fox's administration. Meanwhile, most political attention was focused on the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for July 2006, in which Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, had already emerged as a front-runner.

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 Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated the country by means of its corporatist authoritarian structure, which was maintained through patronage, corruption, and repression. The formal business of government often took place in secret, and the rule of law was frequently compromised by arbitrary power.

In 1999, the PRI nominated, in first-ever open-party competition, former interior minister Francisco Labastida to run for president; the nomination was hailed by some as signaling the politicians' return to the helm of a party ruled during the three previous administrations by technocrats. In September, the National Action Party (PAN) nominated Vicente Fox Quesada, governor of Guanajuato. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas resigned the Mexico City mayoralty and announced he would again lead the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) national ticket. In July 2000, Fox won Mexico's presidency with 42.5 percent of the vote, with Labastida capturing 36 percent, and Cardenas, just 16.6 percent. The PAN also almost became the largest party in the lower house of Congress and increased the number of state governorships it held.

After his election, Fox selected an eclectic cabinet that included businessmen and leftist intellectuals. 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.

By 2003, Fox's greatest achievements remained having bested the long-ruling PRI in the 2000 presidential contest, providing for more open and accountable government, and decapitating the country's vicious drug cartels. The most popular decision of his presidency-to oppose the U.S.-led Iraq war-contributed to his own popularity but 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.

Solutions to the problems of poverty, corruption, crime, and unemployment that the charismatic rancher-politician had promised to fix remained elusive. Elections held in July 2003, 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 and 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, headed by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 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.

The year 2004 marked a resurgence of hard-line sectors of the PRI as the party 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. In 14 state-level elections, including 10 gubernatorial races, a major surprise came in the near-loss by the PRI of the governorship of Veracruz, long a party stronghold. Legal challenges to the outcome of gubernatorial contests in Oaxaca and Veracruz and the mayoral election in Tijuana were issued and subsequently denied, with the three victors taking their posts on December 1. The PAN continued to fight, mostly unsuccessfully, an electoral and congressional rearguard action, hampered by public discontent with poverty, corruption, and organized and street crime, as well as a perceived power vacuum brought about in part by a long-standing partisan logjam in congress.

Meanwhile, attention focused increasingly on the 2006 presidential elections, with Lopez Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, emerging as the apparent front-runner after having overcome several corruption scandals involving top aides. In 2005, Fox had to fend off charges that he was behind efforts to impeach Lopez Obrador in a legal dispute involving an obscure land case that the leftist opposition party called "a technical coup d'etat." The spat energized Lopez Obrador's political base and the prosecution was dropped. Fox's perceived political weakness led the PAN to select Felipe Calderün, a candidate whom he did not favor, to succeed him in the July 2006 elections. After a bitter internal struggle, Roberto Madrazo, the president of the PRI, imposed himself as the candidate of Mexico's formerly dominant party.

In June 2005, 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. Meanwhile, El Universal newspaper unofficially counted more than 1,000 drug-related killings in a nine-month period during the year, part of a violent power struggle reflecting the weakening extraterritorial control of Colombia drug cartels. As a result, a climate of insecurity gripped various areas in the country, particularly along the U.S. border.

In September, a unanimous 2004 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-the first time a former president of Mexico had been charged with any crime-was functionally reversed when a judge refused to issue an arrest warrant. Although the earlier decision was hailed by rights and legal experts as a significant step toward accountability for a "dirty war" against leftist dissidents in which no public officials were ever convicted, the magistrate said that the charges against Echeverria did not amount to genocide.

Although Mexico took strong issue with the United States on Iraq, it sided with the United States in criticisms of Cuba and Venezuela, leading to an open rift with both countries in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Mexico failed to have Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez elected as Secretary General of the Organization of American States in May 2005, losing out to Chile and its candidate, Jose Miguel Insulza. In a triumph for Mexican diplomacy, however, former Finance and Foreign Minister Jose Angel Gurria was elected Secretary General of the OECD in November.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mexicans can choose their government democratically. 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. In July 2005, the Congress gave final approval to an initiative that would allow many Mexicans living overseas to cast absentee mail ballots for the 2006 election. Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which supervises elections and enforces political party laws, has come to be viewed as a model for other countries.

Mexico has a multiparty system, though three parties-the center-right PAN, the center left PRD, and the PRI-garner the lion's share of the vote.

A series of high-profile cases in 2004 of prominent politicians caught on videotape while taking illegal cash led the political parties to pledge support for an overhaul of election 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 2004-2005 elections, with numerous complaints lodged with Mexico's Special Prosecutor for Electoral Crimes. The IFE fined both the PRI and the PAN millions of dollars for electoral irregularities.

Official corruption remains a serious problem. 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. Mexico's ranking on the global index of competitiveness published annually by the World Economic Forum fell from 48 in 2004 to 55 in 2005. Mexico was ranked 65 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

With the opening of the Mexican political system, the media has become much more vigorous and competitive. No longer dependent on the government for advertising and subsidies, it has taken the lead in denouncing official corruption and irregularities, although serious investigative reporting remains wanting. Violence against journalists continues, with reporters probing police issues, narcotics trafficking, and public corruption at particular risk. In 2005, three journalists were killed and another was feared dead after his abduction in April; in 2004, five journalists were killed. These incidents, together with hundreds of narcotics-related murders, made the 18-month period the "the single most deadly period in Mexican history," according to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA). "Threats directed against editors and reporters have resulted in an unwillingness to report on drug trafficking, even where the information is from official sources," the IAPA reported. "The west coast state of Sinaloa has seen the highest number of drug-related killings. Like the border region, there are numerous reports of journalists abandoning their profession and even fleeing the city in fear for their and their families' lives."

In 2002, Mexico enacted its first freedom of information law, considered a "gold standard" worldwide, 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. Mexicans can request government documents through a centralized website, overseen by an independent agency, and public offices have 20 days to respond or face possible sanctions. In addition, the Mexican Congress has used the expanded access to public information in its oversight of the executive branch. The government does not restrict internet access, which is widely available across the nation. In 2005, in a blow to free expression, the Supreme Court ruled that any statement considered an insult to Mexico is subject to punishment.

The constitution provides for religious freedom and the government generally respects this right in practice. 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, although the registration process is 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. In 2005, a Fox spokesman warned that no one could accept illegal funds, responding to a Catholic bishop's statement that the church has no obligation to probe whether donations come from the illegal narcotics trade. Isolated acts of discrimination against non-Catholic Christian groups and at least one anti-Semitic incident were reported in 2005. 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 in some parts of rural Mexico, in poor urban areas, and in poor southern states. Civil society participation has grown in recent years; human rights, prodemocracy, women's, and environmental groups are active. 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.

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 rural areas, respect for laws by official agencies remains tenuous. Lower courts and law enforcement in general are undermined by widespread bribery, despite efforts at reform by the Fox administration. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and abuse of prisoners persist in many areas, although somewhat less so in recent years. 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 those crimes.

In Mexico City, approximately 80 percent of crimes go unreported because the notoriously underpaid police are viewed as either inept or in league with criminals; 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, and in the first six months of 2005, Mexico recorded the most kidnappings in Latin America. 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.

Of some 200,000 police officers in Mexico, only 4 percent belong to the federal police, with the rest, belonging to as many as 2,300 different forces, outside central government control-a result of constitutional clauses governing states' sovereignty. Many local police are given a uniform and a weapon without having to face any serious background checks. On a positive note, in late November 2005, Mexico changed its constitution to allow state and local police to pursue drug traffickers, removing a major stumbling block in antidrug efforts that had long been the exclusive realm of federal officers. The measure, part of a package of bills that includes the possibility of using millions of dollars in seized drug money to fund rewards for the capture of traffickers and the registration of bulletproof cars frequently used by drug traffickers, was approved by a majority of Mexico's 31 state legisla-tures-not including Mexico City-and by a majority in both houses of the country's Congress.

Although civilian-military relations are in a state of flux, presidential authority over the armed forces is extensive. 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 have been 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 2004-2005, 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; by the end of 2005, the Zetas were reported to be recruiting deserting members of Guatemala's counterinsurgency forces.

In June 2003, Fox signed legislation that banned all forms of discrimination, including those based on ethnic origin, gender, age, or religion. Nevertheless, Mexico's indigenous peoples remain largely outside the political and economic mainstream due to social and economic discrimination. Their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultural traditions, and allocation of natural resources is usually negligible, and most Native Americans are relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages lacking roads, running water, schools, and telephones. During 2005, the government maintained troops in selected areas of Chiapas and Guerrero, and those states and others were the site of numerous allegations of excessive force and the violation of international humanitarian law.

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 these problems, which some experts say affect 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 female governor in Mexican history.