Bloomberg Opinion — Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, has never had much time or aptitude for democratic niceties and institutional checks and balances. Yet as he enters the second half of his six-year presidential term, he is moving from bending to breaking political norms and even laws, putting Mexico’s democracy in peril. Mexico’s political backsliding shows how hard it is to defend democracy from abroad. But that doesn’t mean that its neighbors and other nations, particularly the U.S., shouldn’t try.
From the start of his presidency, AMLO has displayed little regard for democratic norms. At the podium in hours-long press conferences every morning, he attacks journalists and columnists not toeing his line. He lashes out at non-governmental organizations and civil society movements investigating corruption, supporting women’s rights or defending human rights. And he has questioned the value of independent public agencies such as the national electoral institute (INE), the antitrust commission (COFECE), the freedom of information agency (INAI) and the national commission on human rights (CNDH).
His push to silence critics and erode democratic checks and balances has gone beyond words. AMLO has used his power in the legislature to cut the budgets of many technically autonomous agencies, making it harder for them to do their jobs as regulators and watchdogs. He has emptied the coffers of more than 100 state-controlled trust funds, or fideicomisos, set up by past governments to safeguard dedicated public support for artists, academics, scientists, journalists and human rights defenders. And he has flouted basic divisions of power between the three branches of government, for instance by appointing and then installing his finance minister before going through the legislative approval process several weeks later.
Recently, his attacks have taken a more sinister and legally sketchy turn. In the public dust-up over revelations of his son’s luxurious living accommodations in Houston, AMLO revealed the personal income data of Carlos Loret de Mola, the journalist who broke the story, in violation of Article 16 of the Constitution, Article 69 of the Federation fiscal code, and Article 6 of the general law on the protection of personal data, among others.
He has seemingly broken electoral laws by shilling for his political party in his morning press conferences (a sitting president isn’t allowed to campaign for others) in the lead-up to last year’s midterm elections, and he is now campaigning for himself before a recall referendum set for April, which also violates electoral laws.
And he has weaponized the judicial branch with politicized investigations and prosecutions. His attorney general threatened to incarcerate more than two dozen professors and scientists in the notorious maximum-security prison Reclusorio Norte on specious money laundering and organized crime charges that were summarily shot down in court. Money-laundering charges against former Supreme Court justice Eduardo Medina Mora were also later dropped for lack of evidence, though not before he relinquished his seat to an AMLO appointee. And the government continues to charge opposition politician Ricardo Anaya with taking bribes, even though in the government’s parallel case against the alleged bribe-giver, Emilio Lozoya, it argues he never gave any of the money away. More broadly, AMLO has repeatedly used the tax authority and financial crimes unit to go after critics, for instance subjecting NGOs investigating corruption to audit after audit.
His signature infrastructure projects routinely skirt the law. The Dos Bocas oil refinery under construction in his home state of Tabasco has violated an agreement with Mexico’s environmental protection agency which forbade the destruction of the site’s mangroves, home to many endangered species. Moreover, the rapid ballooning of the price tag for the project from $8 billion to $12.5 billion and counting raises troubling questions about the original contracting process. The Tren Maya, a new railroad set to ferry tourists up and down the Yucatan peninsula, similarly has ignored environmental restrictions as well as legally required consultations with local indigenous communities.
More broadly, government procurement has become more opaque, with more than three out of every four projects now awarded in no-bid contracts. And for many of its infrastructure outlays, the government has taken to claiming a national security exception to keep the details hidden.
Increasingly worrisome, too, is AMLO’s blind eye to organized crime’s political penetration. The 2021 midterm elections were the most violent in decades, with dozens of candidates assassinated and more scared away. There are too many stories of local and state officials under the sway of narcotraffickers to dismiss, and too few about Mexico’s federal government doing anything about it.
Mexico’s democracy is in trouble. The Economist Intelligence Unit index of democracy, which surveys 165 nations across five measures, recently downgraded the nation from “flawed democracy” to “hybrid regime.”
Those who care about bolstering Mexico’s fragile but still open political system need to raise their voices. While Mexico’s democratic future is in the hands of its people, the U.S. and other democratic nations should use their influence to bolster those who haven’t given up.
The U.S.’s strongest tools lie in the commercial realm, as the USMCA trade agreement supersedes the Constitution in Mexican law. Here the U.S. government can support U.S. companies as they turn to the agreement to defend their contracts, existing property rights and the commercially oriented rule of law against abrupt changes and politicization. The agreement also enables the U.S. and Canada to improve labor standards and environmental protections to the south through new fast-tracked cases and arbitration.
When high-ranking U.S. officials visit next door, they should not shy away from the real worries at hand. Congress should hold hearings on Mexico, investigating and publicizing these worrisome political and economic trends. The U.S. ambassador in Mexico should engage with those who make any democracy work: Journalists, civil society activists, business entrepreneurs, political leaders and government officials from across the political spectrum.
This is starting to happen. During her January visit, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm expressed her “real concerns with the potential negative impact of Mexico’s proposed energy reforms on U.S. private investment in Mexico,” as well as the costs for “U.S.-Mexico joint efforts on clean energy and climate.” Under Secretary of State Jose Fernandez later did the same, emphasizing Mexico’s obligations to fair markets under USMCA.
And recently, the killing of five journalists in as many weeks, one of whom was supposedly under state protection, made strange bedfellows of Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as both lamented the mortal dangers facing Mexico’s press. Their statements, combined with pressure from local journalists, one tearfully naming her fallen colleagues during the president’s morning press conference in Tijuana, forced AMLO to tone down his attacks — albeit only briefly.
U.S. support for Mexico’s democracy should go beyond words and meetings. USAID and other government organizations should continue to support non-governmental organizations dedicated to transparency, accountability and citizen rights. U.S.-based civil society organizations, NGOs, and foundations should follow, refocusing on Mexico after years of declining attention, as greater cross-border connections and resources raise the visibility, resources and leverage of local NGOs and organizations seeking to hold the democratic line.
On the security front, the U.S. will keep working with the Mexican government to improve safety on both sides of the border. But the U.S. should also act on its intelligence to take down drug trafficking rings that span the border and use its legal system to investigate and prosecute illegal doings currently being ignored in Mexico. Targets should include the “senior Mexican government officials” affiliated with or influenced by organized crime mentioned in the State Department’s latest International Narcotics Control Strategy report, as well as investigating potential breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and other U.S. laws in a growing number of complaints of alleged corruption. In the short term, such pressure will not be comfortable or cost-free for the U.S. to apply. A case in point: After Secretary Blinken tweeted in support of Mexico’s beleaguered journalists, AMLO not only bristled that “Mexico is not a colony or a protectorate of the United States,” but then demanded to know why the U.S. was supporting the non-profit organization that surfaced the news about his son’s living arrangements.
AMLO can ignore calls from abroad for transparency, accountability and institutional checks and balances. Yet as a good neighbor affected by what happens in the neighborhood it shares, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore or abandon the tens of millions of Mexicans who have worked for decades to build democratic institutions, create functioning political parties and support watchdogs in the press and civil society. They are now standing up to defend the increasingly fragile democratic structures still in place. The U.S. should lend them a hand.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shannon O’Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.