Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Mexico’s civil liberties rating declined from 2 to 3 due to a deterioration in press freedom, including increasing violence against journalists.
Presidential and legislative elections were held in July 2006 and resulted in a disputed finish, with leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon engaged in a legal battle until early September, when Calderon was declared the official winner. Lopez Obrador refused to accept the results, setting up encampments of supporters in the capital and declaring himself the “legitimate” president. Meanwhile, social disruption shook the southern city of Oaxaca, where a teachers strike turned into a showdown that was still not resolved by year’s end, even though federal troops, who entered the city in October, returned control to state officials in late December. Shortly after taking office, Calderon offered support for some of Lopez Obrador’s proposals in an apparent attempt to end the postelection crisis. Drug-related crime continued to rise, and cross-border tensions grew as the U.S. congress approved a bill calling for the construction of a fence along the border.
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 its first-ever open-party competition, former interior minister Francisco Labastida to run for president; the nomination was described by some as signaling politicians’ return to the helm of a party ruled by technocrats during the three previous administrations. In September, the National Action Party (PAN) nominated Vicente Fox Quesada, the governor of Guanajuato. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas resigned the Mexico City mayoralty and announced that 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 came close to becoming 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. He 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 his defeat of the long-ruling PRI in the 2000 presidential contest, providing for more open and accountable government and arresting leaders of the country’s vicious drug cartels. The most popular decision of his presidency—to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq—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 victory on the most important issue in U.S.-Mexican relations.
Solutions to the problems of poverty, corruption, crime, and unemployment, all of which the charismatic rancher-politician had promised to address, remained elusive. Elections held in July 2003 resulted in the PAN losing the governorship of the prosperous industrial state of Nuevo Leon, long a party stronghold, and reaffirmed the PRI as the dominant opposition party both in Congress and in many statehouses. 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 year 2004 marked a resurgence of hard-line factions 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 who had been linked in the press to drug lords. Legal challenges to the outcome of gubernatorial contests in Oaxaca and Veracruz and the mayoral election in Tijuana were mounted but did not succeed. Public discontent grew in response to the persistence of poverty, corruption, and both organized and street crime, as well as to the perceived power vacuum brought about in part by a long-standing partisan logjam in Congress. On the foreign policy front, relations with former allies Cuba and Venezuela became strained in 2004 and 2005 as Mexico concurred with U.S. criticisms of those countries.
Meanwhile, attention focused increasingly on the 2006 presidential election, with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City and a member of the PRD, emerging as the apparent front-runner after overcoming several corruption scandals involving top aides. In 2005, Fox had to fend off charges that he was behind efforts to impeach Lopez Obrador over a legal dispute involving an obscure land case that the PRD 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 Calderon, a candidate whom he did not favor, to succeed him in the July 2006 election. After a bitter internal struggle, Roberto Madrazo, the president of the PRI, secured the nomination as the candidate of Mexico’s former ruling 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 sweeping much of the country appeared to have been at least partly responsible for the lynching of three federal police officers by an angry mob in Mexico City. A climate of insecurity gripped various areas, particularly along the U.S. border.
The year 2006 was dominated by political and social strife that shook Mexico to its core. The presidential contest quickly became a close-fought battle between Calderon and Lopez Obrador, as the Madrazo campaign never gained substantial traction. Calderon’s campaign sought—with Fox’s help—to paint Lopez Obrador as a danger to Mexico, making thinly veiled references to him as a populist in the mode of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The lead swung back and forth between the two, although Lopez Obrador appeared to have the momentum going into election day. As predicted, the election was extremely close, with Calderon prevailing by a mere 244,000 votes in the initial count.
Seizing on perceived irregularities, Lopez Obrador claimed that the result was fraudulent and declared himself the winner. Between July 2 and September 5, the nation was on edge as legal and social maneuverings ensued. Lopez Obrador presented the PRD’s evidence of fraud to the Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF), while also mobilizing his supporters and setting up encampments throughout downtown Mexico City. He demanded the annulment of the election and a full recount, while simultaneously preparing to initiate an “alternative presidency” and speaking of revolutionary conditions in the country.
However, many Mexicans—and most international observers—were not impressed with the evidence of fraud and resented Lopez Obrador’s seeming lack of respect for Mexican institutions. On August 5, the TEPJF announced that there would be only a partial recount, encompassing 9 percent of the ballots. Exactly one month later, after the recount was complete and the results analyzed, the TEPJF formally declared Calderon the winner. As it became clear throughout August that the tribunal was unlikely to issue a verdict favorable to his cause, Lopez Obrador walked a fine line, attempting to remain sympathetic to the concerns of the larger public while maintaining morale among his more militant backers. The most significant confrontation occurred on September 1, when Fox was blocked from giving his annual State of the Union address before Congress. Splits among the left also widened as many members of the PRD wanted to focus on their new role as the second-largest force in the newly elected Congress; though the PAN won the most seats with 206 deputies and 52 senators, the PRD elected 127 deputies, thus overtaking the PRI, which elected 106 deputies, for the first time.
Several incidents of social unrest also occurred in 2006. In April, a large demonstration in the town of San Salvador Atenco led to clashes between police and protesters that left one person dead and nearly 200 arrested. The most serious incident occurred in Oaxaca, where the annual teachers’ strike spiraled out of control in mid-June, after PRI Governor Ulises Ruiz attempted to forcefully disperse protesters occupying the central plaza and police killed several demonstrators. Tension increased in the following months as radicals of varying stripes converged on Oaxaca, forming the People’s Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO), denouncing Ruiz’s governing style—widely perceived as repressive and corrupt—and demanding his resignation. The protesters shut down the city, destroying Oaxaca’s tourism-based economy, while paramilitaries associated with the governor engaged in occasional shootouts with APPO militants, resulting in several deaths. Fox avoided sending in federal police until late October, when the situation reached a boiling point with the death of a U.S. journalist and several others.
The problem of crime only worsened in 2006, as shootouts shook cities from Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, to the Pacific resort city of Acapulco. The public dumping of severed human heads increased apace, adding a particularly macabre element to the ongoing crime wars. The number of drug-related killings in 2006 topped 2,100, easily exceeding the figure registered in an already bloody 2005. The violence along the border contributed to rising tensions with the United States, which were already increasing as a result of the combative and occasionally xenophobic debate over U.S. immigration reform. The U.S. Congress’s passage of a bill in early October authorizing construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border ensured that the immigration issue would continue to be a sensitive one as the Calderon administration began.
Within days of taking office on December 1, Calderon ordered the arrest of some 130 protest leaders and banned marches. Meanwhile, the new president began speaking and acting in ways suggesting that he was seeking to accommodate, or perhaps co-opt, the leftist opposition. He cut his own salary, as well as those of other top officials—one of Lopez Obrador’s key campaign promises—and redirected the savings toward social programs; he presented a budget calling for reduced spending on the presidential office and considerably increased expenditures for public security and health care; and during his first trip outside the capital, he proposed more federal funds for the country’s 100 poorest towns. Though Governor Ruiz remained in power, federal police were withdrawn from Oaxaca in mid-December. Also in December, Calderon ordered the military into the state of Michoacan in an attempt to take the offensive against the murderous drug cartels.
Mexico is an electoral democracy. The president is elected to a six-year term and cannot be reelected. The bicameral Congress consists of the 128-member Senate, elected for six years by a mix of direct and proportional representation, with at least one minority senator from each state, and the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, with 300 elected directly and 200 through proportional representation, all for three-year terms. Members of Congress are also barred from reelection, which decreases accountability to constituents and increases reliance on party functionaries for subsequent employment. Each state has an elected governor and legislature.
Mexicans living overseas were permitted for the first time to cast absentee ballots by mail in the 2006 elections, though only a small number did so. 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, and the 2006 elections were considered free and fair, despite claims to the contrary by defeated PRD presidential candidate Lopez Obrador. However, a perceived lack of control during the hard-fought presidential campaign led to many complaints, especially by the PRD, centered on negative advertising and campaigning on behalf of victorious PAN candidate Calderon by President Vicente Fox as well as business groups. Additionally, the decision by the IFE’s tribunal arm (the TEPJF) to forgo a full recount was controversial, though most observers considered it legally justified.
Mexico has a multiparty system, but three parties—the center-right PAN, the center-left PRD, and the PRI—garner the lion’s share of the vote. Minor parties often ally themselves with one of the major parties.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. Corruption at the state-owned petroleum giant Pemex alone is estimated to cost the country more than $1 billion per year. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that billions of dollars in illegal drug money is laundered each year in Mexico and says that the country’s financial, political, military, and judicial institutions facilitate those crimes. Transparency Mexico estimates that bribes consume up to 24 percent of the earnings of lower-income Mexicans. Mexico was ranked 70 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Mexico’s legal and constitutional guarantees of free speech have been gradually improving, while the security environment for journalists has declined markedly. With the opening of the Mexican political system in recent years, elements of the press became much more vigorous and competitive, particularly the print media. No longer dependent on the government for advertising and subsidies, the press has taken the lead in denouncing official corruption and irregularities, although serious investigative reporting is scarce. Broadcast media remain dominated by two corporations that control over 90 percent of Mexican stations. In 2006, the so-called Televisa law, named after the largest broadcast company, granted additional broadcast spectrum to the two giants at the expense of potential competitors.
Violence against journalists worsened dramatically in 2006, with reporters probing police issues, narcotics trafficking, and public corruption at particular risk. In 2006, at least eight journalists were killed, including six in the period between October 27 and December 8. The Inter-American Press Association declared that “journalism is becoming more and more dangerous” in the country. On the positive side, a new special prosecutor’s office devoted to investigating crime against journalists was opened.
In 2002, Mexico enacted its first freedom of information law. Considered a “gold standard” worldwide, it expressly prohibits the government from withholding for any reason information about crimes against humanity or gross human rights violations. 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, 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.
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 evangelicals and 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. Religious discourse is gradually becoming less taboo in the public square. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free assembly and association 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 indigenous groups constitute close to half the population. In February, 65 miners were killed in an accident; subsequent efforts to assign blame served to highlight shortcomings in labor conditions and the ineffectiveness of Mexican trade unions, which have long faced government interference. In April 2006, protests related to this tradition of interference led to the deaths of three striking steelworkers.
The Mexican justice system remains plagued by problems of slowness and unpredictability. . 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. Over a dozen women reported being raped by police after being arrested during the unrest in San Salvador Atenco in May 2006. Prisons are violent and overcrowded, and pretrial detainees account for up to 40 percent of prisoners. In July 2006, the centerpiece of the Fox administration’s modest attempt to prosecute notorious past human rights abuses ended when charges against former president Luis Echeverria were dismissed.
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. Residents report that over half of all interactions with police lead to abuse, most often in the form of a bribe solicitation. With over 3,000 cases a year, kidnapping is epidemic, and it is on the increase, particularly in Tijuana and other northern cities. Attempts in 2001 and 2005 to clean up the law enforcement system met with little success, as citizens still place little trust in the police.
Of some 385,000 police officers in Mexico, only 21,000 are federal officers assigned to the fight against drugs and other organized crime, with the rest belonging to as many as 2,300 different forces outside central government control—a result of constitutional clauses governing state sovereignty. Many local police are given a uniform and a weapon without having to face any serious background checks.
Presidential authority over the armed forces is extensive. However, 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 continue to commit numerous rights violations. Human rights groups say that 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. Over the last several years, the role of former Mexican and Guatemalan soldiers in drug gangs they were trained to combat has received much media attention.
In June 2003, Fox signed legislation that banned all forms of discrimination, including those based on ethnic origin, gender, age, and religion. Nevertheless, Mexico’s indigenous peoples remain largely outside the political and economic mainstream as a result of 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 are relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages lacking roads, running water, schools, and telephones. During 2006, the government maintained troops in selected areas of Chiapas and Guerrero, and those states and others were the sites of numerous allegations of excessive force and violations 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; the annual labor turnover averages 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. The government has pledged to fight these problems, which have been reported to affect nearly 50 percent of all women. In 2006, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the severe difficulties that rape victims encounter when seeking access to abortions, which are legal for victims of rape and in cases where the mother’s life would be at risk or severe birth defects are probable. Mexico is both a source and a transit country for trafficked persons. Internal trafficking is also a problem. Rights groups continue to pressure Mexican authorities to make further progress in investigating the murders and disappearances of numerous women in Ciudad Juarez over the last decade.