Freedom in the World
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Violence associated with drug trafficking continued to rise in 2007, even as President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of troops to states facing particularly grave threats from warring cartels. In the wake of the controversial 2006 presidential election, Mexico passed an electoral reform that aimed to limit the influence of outside interests in political campaigns.
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 established the United Mexican States as a federal republic. From its founding in 1929 until 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated the country 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 the landmark 2000 presidential election, Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party (PAN) defeated the PRI nominee as well as the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), capturing 42.5 percent of the vote. The new president assembled an eclectic cabinet that included businessmen and leftist intellectuals, announced plans to overhaul the notoriously corrupt and inefficient law enforcement agencies, and pledged to make Mexico an international leader in human rights.
By 2003, Fox’s greatest achievements remained his defeat of the long-ruling PRI, providing for more open and accountable government, and arresting leaders of the country’s vicious drug cartels. Solutions to the problems of poverty, corruption, crime, and unemployment, all of which he had promised to address, remained elusive. Elections held in July 2003 confirmed the PRI as the main opposition party both in Congress and in many statehouses.
In 2004, attention focused increasingly on the 2006 presidential election, with the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, emerging as the apparent front-runner. In 2005, Fox had to fend off charges that he was behind efforts to impeach Lopez Obrador over an obscure land case. 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, PRI leader Roberto Madrazo secured his party’s nomination.
The presidential contest quickly became a close-fought battle between Calderon and Lopez Obrador, as the Madrazo campaign never gained 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 Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez. 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 remained on edge as Lopez Obrador sought the annulment of the election and a full recount, while simultaneously preparing to initiate an “alternative presidency.” Many Mexicans—and most international observers—were not impressed with the PRD’s evidence of fraud and resented Lopez Obrador’s seeming lack of respect for Mexican institutions. On August 5, the Federal Electoral Tribunal announced that there would be only a partial recount, and one month later it formally declared Calderon the winner. Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, attempted to remain sympathetic to the concerns of the larger public while maintaining morale among his more militant backers. The confrontation peaked on September 1, when protests prevented Fox from giving his annual State of the Union address before Congress. Splits among the left also widened, as many PRD members preferred to focus on the party’s new role as the second-largest force in 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 two people dead and over 200 arrested. In a controversial verdict in May 2007, three Atenco peasant leaders were sentenced to 67 years in prison each for allegedly kidnapping local police. Meanwhile, human rights groups decried the seemingly slow and ineffectual process of disciplining police officers accused of abuses during the clash.
An even more serious crisis in 2006 occurred in Oaxaca, where the annual teachers’ strike spiraled out of control in mid-June after Governor Ulises Ruiz of the PRI attempted to forcefully disperse protesters in the central plaza and police killed several demonstrators. In the following months, radicals of varying stripes converged on Oaxaca to demand Ruiz’s resignation. The protests crippled the state’s tourism-based economy, and paramilitaries associated with the governor engaged in occasional shootouts with militants, resulting in over a dozen 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. Though violence in Oaxaca declined significantly in 2007, a clash in July led to the arrests of 40 people amid further accusations of police brutality.
The problem of crime has only worsened in recent years. The number of drug-related killings topped 2,100 in 2006, and after taking office, Calderon began deploying the military in the states most affected. The decision to send in troops, though questioned by some rights groups, was politically popular and served to portray Calderon as a take-charge leader. By late 2007, over 20,000 troops and federal police had been sent to 10 states. Nonetheless, the number of drug-linked killings increased to over 2,600 in 2007, and violence was pushed into areas where it had not been a significant problem before. In late October 2007, U.S. president George W. Bush asked Congress for $1.4 billion in aid to help equip and train Mexico’s security forces and improve its legal institutions.
Political confrontations subsided considerably in 2007. Calderon asserted himself as a clever politician, forging legislative coalitions with the PRI and occasionally even a faction of the PRD to pass pension, tax, electoral, and judicial reforms. State and local elections were held in 14 states throughout the year, with the PRI faring far better than the other two major parties.
Also during the year, a guerrilla group, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), emerged from a long period of inactivity to protest the disappearance of two of its members in May. It staged a series of sophisticated attacks, including dramatic July 10 and September 10 strikes on oil and gas installations; the resulting shutdowns caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. The government insisted that it did not know the whereabouts of the missing guerrillas and was still investigating at year’s end.
In late October and early November, severe flooding struck the southern state of Tabasco. At their peak, the floodwaters submerged 80 percent of the state, affected over a million people, and caused billions of dollars in damage. Many citizens expressed anger and frustration that money allocated for flood defenses in the wake of a 1999 inundation had apparently been wasted, diverted, or left unspent.
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.
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. The 2006 elections were considered free and fair, despite claims to the contrary by presidential runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD. However, a perceived lack of control during the hard-fought presidential campaign led to many complaints, especially by the PRD, concerning negative advertising and campaigning, often using state resources, on behalf of victorious PAN candidate Felipe Calderon by incumbent president Vicente Fox Quesada as well as business groups. In response, a major electoral reform was passed in 2007 to strictly regulate campaign financing and the content of political advertising. Supporters argued that the reform would sever the links between politics and Mexico’s often oligarchic business interests. Critics, however, claimed that the new rules would weaken free speech, diminish the independence of the IFE, and further increase the power of the main three parties (PAN, PRI, and PRD) relative to smaller groups.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. In the 2007 Latinobarometro poll, 33 percent of Mexicans stated that they or a relative had been party to a corrupt act in the previous 12 months; notably, this represented a sharp decline from the 2002–05 average of 54 percent. The Mexican prosecutor’s office estimates that $10 billion in illegal drug money enters the country each year from the United States; the money is then laundered, with ineffective resistance by financial, political, security, and judicial institutions. There is the perception that drug money affects politics, particularly on the state and local levels. In October 2007, a congressional committee launched a corruption probe against Fox after assets he displayed in a magazine profile appeared inconsistent with his known earnings. Mexico was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Legal and constitutional guarantees of free speech have been gradually improving, but the security environment for journalists has declined markedly. No longer dependent on the government for advertising and subsidies, the competitive press has taken the lead in denouncing official corruption, although serious investigative reporting is scarce. Broadcast media are dominated by two corporations that control over 90 percent of the stations. In 2007, the so-called Televisa law, which had granted additional broadcast spectrum to the two giants, was struck down by the Supreme Court. In addition, defamation was decriminalized at the federal level, though it remains a crime in many states. The Supreme Court in November exonerated Puebla governor Mario Marin of the charge that he violated journalist Lydia Cacho’s rights when he had her detained in Cancun, driven 900 miles to Puebla, and charged with defamation of a businessman. The decision was viewed as strengthening Mexico’s notorious climate of impunity.
Following a sharp increase in violence in 2006, reporters probing police issues, narcotics trafficking, and public corruption remained at high risk in 2007. At least five journalists and newspaper distributors were killed during the year, and at least two others disappeared. Self-censorship has increased, and many newspapers in high-violence zones no longer publish bylines on stories involving organized crime. Press freedom groups welcomed the federalization of crimes against journalists, but noted that the special prosecutor’s office devoted to investigating these acts had made only slow progress since opening in 2006. Mexico’s widely respected 2002 freedom of information law strictly bars the government from withholding information about crimes against humanity or gross human rights violations. Despite some limitations, the law has generally been considered successful at strengthening transparency. A reform of Article 6 of the constitution was passed in 2007 to further define required transparency standards at the various levels of government. The government does not restrict internet access, which is widely available.
Religious freedom is constitutionally protected and generally respected in practice. However, it is limited in some areas, particularly in Chiapas state, and there are frequent reports of harassment of evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Religious discourse is becoming less taboo in the public square; in 2007, the Roman Catholic Church spoke out strongly against Mexico City’s legalization of early-term abortions. PRD supporters disrupted services at one of Mexico’s most prominent cathedrals in November to protest the Church’s alleged political loyalties and its perceived lax treatment of the issue of pedophile priests. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free assembly and association are generally respected, but political and civic expression is restricted in some rural districts, poor urban areas, and poor southern states. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), though increasingly active, sometimes face violent resistance. In 2007, several NGO workers were killed, including a human rights defender in Sinaloa, an antilogging activist in Mexico State, and a campaigner for migrant workers’ rights in Monterrey. Mexican trade unions have long faced government and management interference, although their status as a pillar of the PRI has diminished significantly.
The justice system remains plagued by slowness and unpredictability. In rural areas, respect for laws by official agencies remains tenuous, and coordination between federal authorities and the state and local police forces is problematic. Lower courts and law enforcement in general are undermined by widespread bribery. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and abuse of prisoners persist in many areas, although to a somewhat lesser degree 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 inmates. A large proportion of crimes go unreported because the notoriously underpaid police are viewed as either inept or in league with criminals.
At the end of 2007, Congress moved toward passage of a major judicial reform that would replace the civil-inquisitorial trial system with an oral-adversarial one. Experts viewed this as a positive measure that would increase efficiency and fairness. Nonetheless, other elements of the law, including police powers to enter residences in an emergency without a warrant and the extension of preventive detention for certain crimes, were seen as invitations to future abuses. At year’s end, it was unclear which, if any, controversial provisions would be stricken from the law before final passage.
Presidential authority over the armed forces is extensive, but the military has historically operated beyond public scrutiny, and human rights advocates have warned that its strengthened antinarcotics role will spread corruption and other abuses within its ranks. Several serious human rights violations occurred in 2007, including arbitrary detentions and physical abuse during operations in both Michoacan and Tamaulipas, and the killing of five people as their car approached a military checkpoint in Sinaloa. Notably, three soldiers were convicted in October of raping a group of women in Coahuila in 2006, marking the first conviction of members of the military in a civil court.
A 2003 law banned all forms of discrimination, including those based on ethnic origin, gender, age, and religion. Nevertheless, social and economic discrimination has marginalized Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands and cultural traditions is usually negligible, and most are relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages that lack most essential services.
The maquiladoras (export-processing zones) have fostered substantial abuses of workers’ rights. Maquiladora workers often are young, uneducated women who receive low pay, lack medical insurance and paid vacation, and are frequently the targets of sexual harassment and abuse.
Domestic violence and sexual abuse reportedly affect nearly 50 percent of all women. In February 2007, the government passed a comprehensive law to protect women from domestic abuse, though its efficacy has yet to be determined. Mexico City in April legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, provoking a fierce confrontation with conservatives led by the Catholic Church. Mexico is both a source and a transit country for trafficked persons. Internal trafficking is also a problem. The killings of hundreds of women in the U.S. border zone over the last 15 years remained a controversial subject as the 14-year statute of limitations began to affect unsolved cases. While acknowledging progress against impunity in more recent deaths, rights groups continue to pressure the authorities to speed investigations of older killings.