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Mexico has been an electoral democracy since 2000, and alternation in power between the leading parties is routine at both the federal and state levels. However, the country suffers from severe rule-of-law deficits that limit full citizen enjoyment of political rights and civil liberties. Violence perpetrated by organized criminals, corruption among government officials, human rights abuses by both state and nonstate actors, and a climate of impunity are among the most visible of Mexico’s many governance challenges.
- Corruption accusations against government officials, particularly at the state level, contributed to multiple losses for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in gubernatorial elections in June.
- Little progress was made in the investigation of the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, an event that continues to generate outrage and protests. In April, international investigators released a report questioning key elements of the government’s narrative.
- Criminal violence rose sharply during the year, and by October, homicide cases had reached their highest levels since the current government took office in late 2012.
The administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), began its term in December 2012 with a promising set of reforms accompanied by slowing homicide rates, generating optimism about Mexico’s economic and social direction. However, starting in 2014 the government’s narrative of progress has been undermined by corruption scandals and rights abuses. The problems continued in 2016, with an increase in homicide rates, corruption scandals implicating high-level PRI officials, and tension with international rights observers over the government’s investigation of the 2014 disappearance of 43 college students in Iguala, Guerrero.
The results of gubernatorial elections in 12 states in June illustrated the effects of mounting corruption scandals involving government officials. PRI candidates lost races in several states in which incumbents had been accused of graft, including the populous states of Veracruz and Chihuahua; notably, the elections also marked the first time in the PRI’s history it lost the governorship of Veracruz, as well as those of Quintana Roo and Tamaulipas. In the fall, arrest warrants were issued for outgoing Veracruz governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa of the PRI and outgoing Sonora governor Guillermo Padrés Elías of the National Action Party (PAN); Padrés turned himself in to authorities in November, while Duarte remained at large at the year’s end.
Weak accountability for human rights violations also generated political discontent throughout the year. Judicial processes surrounding the Iguala disappearances continued against scores of local police, drug gang members, and the mayor of the city and his wife, but as of year’s end no convictions had been achieved. In June, government cooperation with a group of international experts backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), ended when the government opted not to renew the agreement governing the group’s mission. In April, the experts had released the latest of a series of reports assailing investigative and procedural lapses in the government’s investigation; the report cast renewed doubt on the government’s conclusion that the students’ remains had been burned in a municipal dump, and alleged that the testimony the government’s description of the crime rested on had been extracted by torturing suspects. The state agreed in July to an accord that authorized a reduced presence by the investigative group.
Other manifestations of accountability shortcomings included the May dismissal of charges against soldiers accused of murder following a 2014 confrontation between criminals and an army unit in the State of Mexico that left 22 people dead. In August, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) accused the federal police of covering up extrajudicial executions following a 2015 raid that resulted in the deaths of 42 alleged gang members and a police officer. Rights watchers also decried the slow pace of investigations into the June deaths of eight protesters at the hands of the federal police during violent teachers’ protests in Oaxaca. The steadily rising violence throughout the year undermined the message of security improvements that the government had broadcast during the initial years of the Peña Nieto administration.
The president is elected to a six-year term and cannot be reelected. The bicameral Congress consists of the 128-member Senate and the 500-member Chamber of Deputies. Senators are elected for six-year terms through a mix of direct voting and proportional representation, with at least two parties represented in each state’s delegation. In the Chamber of Deputies, 300 members are elected through direct representation and 200 through proportional representation, each for three-year terms. Under 2013 electoral reforms, current members of Congress are no longer barred from reelection and candidates are permitted to run as independents. As of 2018, elected senators will be eligible to serve up to two six-year terms; deputies will be permitted to serve up to four three-year terms. In Mexico’s federal system, the elected governor and legislature in each of the 31 states have significant governing responsibility, including oversight of most of the country’s beleaguered police forces.
Peña Nieto won the 2012 presidential election with 38 percent of the vote, followed by veteran Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador with 31 percent. Although López Obrador initially refused to accept the results, alleging infractions such as widespread vote buying, overspending, and media bias, the Federal Electoral Tribunal found insufficient evidence to invalidate the election. In 2015 midterm elections, the PRI and allied parties overcame poor government approval ratings to garner a 260-seat majority in the lower chamber. The right-wing PAN won 108 seats, while left-wing parties (the PRD, the López Obrador-led National Regeneration Movement [MORENA], and the Citizens’ Movement) won 120. No coalition commands a majority in the Senate, where the PRI–Green Party alliance won 61 seats in 2012, the PAN took 38, and the PRD won 22.
Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) supervises elections and enforces political party laws, including strict regulations on campaign financing and the content of political advertising—although control is weaker in practice. Both the 2012 and 2015 elections were generally considered free and fair, but complaints persisted. The primary accusations in 2012—which concerned alleged instances of vote buying and collusion between the PRI and dominant broadcaster Televisa—were instrumental in sparking a significant anti-PRI student movement. At the state level, allegations of misuse of public resources to favor specific gubernatorial candidates are frequent. The 2013 political reform broadened the INE’s power to oversee state elections, and the agency was generally considered to have competently managed balloting in the 2015 midterms and 2016 state races. However, political analysts fault the INE’s unwillingness to adequately punish campaign violations. Numerous irregularities were reported in the 2016 elections, including carousel voting and destruction of ballots, with the most reports coming from Veracruz State.
Mexico’s multiparty system features few official restrictions on political organization and activity. Power has changed hands twice at the national level since 2000, and opposition parties are also competitive in many states. However, in states with lower levels of multiparty contestation, locally dominant political actors often govern in a highly opaque manner that limits political activity and citizen participation, and opens the door to corruption and organized crime.
The PRI returned to national government in 2012 after losing two consecutive presidential races to the right-leaning PAN. The PRI ruled Mexico without interruption from 1929 to 2000, and many Mexicans still question its commitment to full democracy. Its ally the Green Party is viewed as a particularly feckless seeker of control over public funds. The left, which had previously been dominated by the PRD, fragmented prior to the 2015 midterms, with López Obrador forming his own party, MORENA, which in 2016 won 22 of the 60 elected seats on the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a constitution in Mexico City; the remaining 40 deputies are appointed by the PRI-dominated legislative branch and Peña Nieto.
Politicians and municipal governments have been subject to significant pressure from criminal groups in recent years. Six mayors were assassinated in 2016, adding to a tally of over 80 mayors and ex-mayors killed since 2006.
Indigenous Mexicans are not blocked from participating in the political process, and federal and state laws prescribe procedures for the integration of traditional community customs. However, indigenous groups remain underrepresented in formal political institutions.
Organized crime and related violence have limited the effective governing authority of elected officials in some areas of the country. Members of organized crime groups have persisted in their attempts to infiltrate local governments to ensure their own impunity. The mass student disappearance in Iguala in 2014 has been linked to a deeply corrupt local government working in conjunction with a drug gang. In the most violent regions, the provision of public services has become more difficult, as public-sector employees such as teachers face extortion.
Official corruption remains a serious problem. Billions of dollars in illegal drug money—as well as large quantities of powerful firearms—enter the country each year from the United States, and such funds affect politics, particularly at the state and local levels. Attempts to prosecute officials for alleged involvement in corrupt or criminal activity have often failed due to the weakness of the cases brought by the state. Punitive measures have generally focused on low- and mid-level officials, with lower pressure on high-ranking elected officials. The extent of state-level corruption uncovered in Veracruz—where the governor and his cronies are accused of pilfering hundreds of millions of dollars in 2015 alone by robbing the pension fund and channeling government contracts through shadow companies—led to a sharp outcry and the October 2016 resignation of Veracruz governor Duarte, who was charged with corruption and subsequently fled from authorities.
Pressure for reform has intensified since 2014, when it was revealed that the president’s wife and the finance minister had purchased multimillion-dollar houses from an active government contractor. In 2015, all were cleared of wrongdoing following a widely derided investigation; however, the civil society outcry about lack of progress in combatting corruption contributed to the 2015 passage of constitutional amendments creating a new National Anticorruption System that grants more autonomy to auditors and prosecutors. These were followed in June 2016 by a set of bills to implement the reforms, which notably featured intensive cooperation with civil society groups. However, a provision giving the sitting prosecutor general a nine-year term once the autonomy provisions take effect yielded controversy when PRI senator and government ally Raúl Cervantes Andrade was appointed prosecutor general in October 2016.
Despite some limitations, a 2002 freedom of information law has successfully strengthened transparency at the federal level, though implementation has slowed and enforcement is uneven across states. A new and more extensive transparency law passed in 2015 was mostly praised by good governance advocates, although controversies over denial of access to files pertaining to abuses by state security forces persisted.
Legal and constitutional guarantees of free speech have been improving gradually, but the security environment for journalists remains highly problematic. While some major media outlets have reduced or eliminated their dependence on the government for advertising and subsidies, the distribution of government advertising still affects coverage, particularly at the local level. Broadcast media are dominated by a corporate duopoly composed of Televisa and TV Azteca, which together control approximately 95 percent of the free-to-air market. Televisa has faced accusations of supporting specific politicians over the years, usually from the PRI. A 2013 telecommunications law established a new telecommunications regulator, strengthened the Federal Economic Competition Commission, and resulted in the creation of two new free-to-air channels, the first of which arrived on the airwaves in October 2016. However, civil society groups have criticized the limited scope of the reforms, and the winners of the auctioned airwaves—one of which subsequently was stripped of its frequency for nonpayment—were not considered likely to offer significant new competition.
Reporters probing police issues, drug trafficking, and official corruption face an increasingly high risk of physical harm. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), nine journalists were murdered in 2016, and the organization confirmed that two of the journalists were killed for reasons connected to their jobs. Self-censorship has increased, with many newspapers in violent areas avoiding publication of stories concerning organized crime. Press watchdog groups hailed the 2012 federalization of crimes against journalists as well as a 2015 law in Mexico City aimed at protecting journalists and human rights defenders, but they have decried the slow pace of the federal government’s special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression since the office gained authority in 2013. Despite improvements in legal status, community radio stations continue to face occasional harassment from criminals and state authorities.
Mexico has been at the forefront of citizen-led efforts to ensure internet access. The government amended Article 6 of the constitution in 2013 to make access to the internet a civil right. However, gangs have targeted bloggers and online journalists who report on organized crime, issuing threats and periodically murdering online writers.
Religious freedom is protected by the constitution and is generally respected in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom, though university students are sometimes threatened for their political activism. While there are no formal impediments to free and open discussion, fear of criminal monitoring restricts citizens’ willingness to converse publicly about crime in some areas of the country.
Constitutional guarantees regarding free assembly and association are largely upheld, but political and civic expression is restricted in some regions. The most extensive and controversial protests in 2016 were carried out by teachers’ unions; the events paralyzed economic activity in several southern states for months. In June, a federal police–led effort to clear a highway in Oaxaca being blocked by teachers’ union members and local residents led to the deaths of eight protesters, with scores more injured, under circumstances that remained murky months later.
Although highly active, nongovernmental organizations sometimes face violent resistance, including threats and murders. Activists representing indigenous groups contesting large-scale infrastructure projects have been particularly vulnerable. In 2012, civil society pressure prompted the government to create a Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. As of mid-2016 it had offered protection to 333 people since its inception, but has also been critiqued by rights groups as slow and suffering from insufficient governmental commitment. On multiple occasions in early 2016, government officials or their allies verbally attacked prominent human rights advocates, baselessly describing them as members of a “mafia” group reaping financial gains from criticism of the government.
Trade unions, long a pillar of the PRI, have diminished significantly, but independent unions still face interference from the government. Informal, nontransparent negotiations between employers and politically connected union leaders often result in “protection contracts” that govern employee rights but are never seen by workers. Several large unions are considered opaque and antagonistic to necessary policy reforms. Longtime teachers’ union leader Elba Esther Gordillo—widely perceived as extremely corrupt—was arrested in 2013 and charged with embezzling more than $150 million; she remained in detention throughout 2016, though since January she has been held at a Mexico City hospital due to health concerns.
Mexico’s justice system is plagued by delays, unpredictability, and corruption, leading to pervasive impunity. A 2008 constitutional reform replaced the civil-inquisitorial trial system with an oral-adversarial one. Although it was expected to strengthen due process while increasing efficiency and impartiality, human rights groups raised concerns about the weak protections it affords to those suspected of involvement in organized crime. Implementation of the new system was technically completed in June 2016, but analysts noted that absent more thorough training at all levels, from police to judges, the credibility of the new system would be at risk.
Abuses during criminal investigations are rife; in 2015, a UN special rapporteur released a report characterizing torture as “generalized” within Mexican police forces, generating a diplomatic spat. The government has also faced domestic and international pressure to confront the problem of forced disappearance, which affects an unknown portion of the more than 28,000 Mexicans listed as disappeared in a national registry. The weakness of forensic investigations was notably highlighted when experts from the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)—a body established in an agreement between the IACHR, the Mexican government, and organizations representing the Iguala victims’ family members—produced evidence that the head of the federal criminal investigation unit had made an unregistered appearance at the San Juan River shortly before the only identifiable remains of the murdered Iguala students were found there. The official, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, resigned from his position in September 2016 following months of criticism, though shortly afterward he was appointed technical secretary of the National Security Council. The GIEI report, released in April, also cast doubt on the government’s claims that the students’ remains were incinerated at a Cocula dump, and alleged that the testimony the government’s description of the crime rested on had been extracted through torture. The government declined to renew the GIEI’s mission weeks after the report was released, but later agreed to allow it to continue working in a reduced capacity.
Coordination among Mexico’s many federal, state, and local law enforcement entities has long been problematic, and the Peña Nieto administration has pursued streamlined chains of command. In zones plagued by crime, federal troops have temporarily replaced local police forces. Critics contend that federal intervention decreases incentives for governors to undertake systemic reforms, and in practice implementation of such reforms at the local level has been largely unsuccessful. Despite a 2009 law ordering all members of the police to be vetted, thousands of police who failed to meet requirements have remained on the job.
Lower courts—and law enforcement in general—are undermined by widespread bribery and suffer from limited capacity. According to a government survey released in September 2016, over 93 percent of crimes committed in 2015 went unreported because the underpaid police are viewed as either inept or in league with criminals. Even when investigations are conducted, only a handful of crimes end in convictions. Prisons are violent and overcrowded, and it is not uncommon for prisoners to continue criminal activity while incarcerated. In February 2016, 49 prisoners died in a riot in a state prison in Monterrey. The 2015 escape of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán from a high-security federal prison illustrated the depth of corruption in the criminal justice system; Guzmán was recaptured in January 2016. The CNDH, long maligned due to its perceived passivity in the face of rampant rights abuses, began to regain some credibility following the appointment of a new director in 2014, and in August 2016 it issued a report accusing the federal police of covering up extrajudicial executions following a 2015 raid outside the city of Guadalajara that resulted in the deaths of 42 alleged gangsters and a police officer.
Presidential authority over the armed forces is extensive, but the military has historically operated beyond public scrutiny. Human rights advocates for years have expressed concern about a lack of accountability for rights abuses including torture, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. Military personnel are generally tried in military courts, but a bill passed in 2014 shifted the venue of trials for violations of civilians’ rights to civilian courts. While a handful of soldiers have been convicted of crimes including torture and murder, the status of many processes remains unclear. Rights watchers viewed the May 2016 dismissal of charges against three soldiers indicted for the 2014 State of Mexico massacre as a grave setback in an emblematic case. In November 2016, several bills to allow the military to perform police-like tasks in order to “safeguard internal security” were introduced in Congress; they remained pending at year’s end.
The number of deaths attributed to organized crime rose sharply each year between 2007 and 2011, declined from 2012 to 2014, and subsequently began trending upward. Violence in 2016 spiked in Colima, Zacatecas, Tijuana, and Mexico City, while remaining acute in Guerrero. Gang murders continue to feature extreme brutality designed to maximize the psychological impact on civilians, authorities, and rival groups.
In recent years, the government has taken a number of steps to curb violence and ease popular frustration with the problem. These include engaging in consultations with civic leaders, the continued deployment of troops, the reformation of the federal police and development of the National Gendarmerie, and the decriminalization of possession of small quantities of drugs. The Peña Nieto administration has been less vocal on matters of public safety than its predecessor, but it has maintained many of the former administration’s strategies, including use of the military. However, after three straight years of declines, the murder rate increased by more than 8 percent in 2015, and an additional 22 percent in 2016, generating renewed pressure for strategic changes in state efforts to contain the carnage.
Mexican law bans discrimination based on ethnic origin, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the large indigenous population has been subject to social and economic discrimination, and 70 percent of the indigenous population lives in poverty. Southern states with high concentrations of indigenous residents suffer from particularly deficient services. Indigenous groups have been harmed by criminal violence; in recent years, a series of communities in Guerrero and Michoacán have formed self-defense groups, some of which were subsequently legalized. In addition, disputes over land issues within indigenous groups have occasionally become violent, particularly in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.
Criminals have impeded freedom of movement by blocking major roads in several states in recent years, and ordinary citizens avoid roads in many rural areas after dark. Rights groups frequently detail the persecution and criminal predation faced by migrants from Central America, many of whom move through Mexico to reach the United States. Despite government initiatives to improve protections, pressure from the United States to crack down on migration pathways generated ongoing accusations of abuses against migrants in 2016. Separately, in late 2014 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated that there were more than 280,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Mexico, many of whom had fled cartel-related violence.
Property rights in Mexico are protected by a modern legal framework, but the weakness of the judicial system, frequent solicitation of bribes by bureaucrats and officials, and the high incidence of criminal extortion harm security of property for many individuals and businesses. Large-scale development projects have been accompanied by controversy in recent years, and in September 2016 the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights urged greater consultation with indigenous groups to minimize the damaging effects of such projects.
Women play a prominent role in social and political life, and female representatives increased their share of seats in the Chamber of Deputies to 42 percent in the 2015 elections. However, sexual abuse and domestic violence against women are common, and perpetrators are rarely punished. Implementation of a 2007 law designed to protect women from such crimes remains halting, particularly at the state level, and impunity is the norm for the killers of hundreds of women each year. As of the end of 2016, authorities in the State of Mexico, Michoacán, Morelos, Chiapas, Nuevo León, Veracruz, and Jalisco had issued “gender alerts,” thereby triggering greater scrutiny and an influx of resources to combat an epidemic of violence against women. Abortion has been a contentious issue in recent years, with many states reacting to Mexico City’s 2007 liberalization of abortion laws by strengthening their own criminal bans on the procedure.
Mexico has taken significant steps toward LGBT equality, courtesy of Supreme Court rulings in 2015 that struck down state laws defining the purpose of marriage as procreation. However, implementing the jurisprudence in all Mexican states will take time, as the court’s rulings do not apply in blanket form. In May 2016, Peña Nieto proposed a constitutional amendment legalizing same-sex marriage, but the project encountered opposition from the Catholic Church and was shelved in November.
Mexico is a major source, transit, and destination country for trafficking in persons, including women and children, many of whom are subject to forced labor and sexual exploitation. Organized criminal gangs are heavily involved in human trafficking in Mexico and into the United States. Government corruption is a significant concern as many officials are bribed by or aide traffickers.