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What Mexico’s Presidential Election Means for Democracy and Security

June 13, 2024
Cecilia Farfán

Cecilia Farfan Mendez.

Mexico’s presidential election has elevated the first female leader in North America, Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist with ties to UC Berkeley. Sheinbaum will assume the presidency amidst growing security challenges, executive efforts to undermine some of its democratic institutions, and uncertainty over Mexico’s relations with the United States. To unpack the impact of this election on U.S.-Mexico cooperation, from fentanyl to migration and trade, IGCC senior writer/editor Paddy Ryan speaks with Cecilia Farfán, an IGCC affiliate and expert in organized crime who recently served as the head of research at UC San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

International media coverage has focused on Claudia Sheinbaum becoming the first female president in a country whose culture has long been associated with machismo, a form of male chauvinism. What does this election say about how Mexico is changing socially and politically?

I agree that this is a historic election. But I wouldn’t say that the election of the country’s first female president is a definitive sign that things have changed considerably. Machismo is still alive and well, and Mexico has a significant gender-based violence issue. Women are being killed at alarming rates in Mexico, and the ways that women are victimized has also changed in recent years.

It’s a paradox. It will be interesting to see how Sheinbaum tries to address gender issues, given the very strong mandate that she has received from voters and her intentions of continuing with policies from the previous administration.

Sheinbaum was the preferred successor of the outgoing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—known as AMLO—who leaves office with sky-high approval ratings. Will Sheinbaum continue AMLO’s policies, which have focused on tackling socio-economic injustice? And given his popularity, will AMLO still play a role in Mexican politics after his presidency?

Sheinbaum’s campaign had stressed continuity with López Obrador and his “Fourth Transformation” agenda. This is very unusual for Mexican politics. Incumbents are limited to one six-year term, and in the previous four elections since Mexico’s transition to competitive multi-party democracy, the outgoing presidents have not been very popular. Each left Mexico after their term ended.

Sheinbaum finds herself in uncharted territory. López Obrador is not leaving the country and is used to constantly engaging the public. It isn’t clear how AMLO is going to behave as a former president, especially since his administration set up Sheinbaum’s electoral success.

For President Sheinbaum, there will be a balancing act between continuity and disruption. The peso fell after it was announced that not only did she win the presidency, but her Morena party also won significant victories in Congress, signaling nervousness from the private sector about what the party could do with control over the executive and legislative branches. She quickly sought to address this by posting on social media about a productive call she had with President Biden and the continuation of the secretary of finance in his role.

Once she’s in office, she’ll want to create her own brand and style of government without necessarily negating where she comes from. This is Sheinbaum’s project, not just AMLO’s.

The AMLO administration has been accused of undermining Mexican democracy, notably through its attempts to weaken the National Electoral Institute (INE)— Mexico’s election monitor—and eliminate the National Institute for Transparency (INAI), a government watchdog. Where do these efforts stand now? And what does Sheinbaum’s election mean for the state of Mexican democracy more generally?

The short answer is, we don’t know. Running on AMLO’s popularity was clearly a winning strategy. But we know a lot less about her and how she will govern as a result.

I think her view of the INE is different than AMLO’s because he believes it orchestrated his defeat in the 2006 presidential election, when he lost by less than one percentage point to Felipe Calderón. But to the extent that they are seen as obstacles to the project she wants to implement, I can see her working to undermine those institutions. For example, when discussing judicial reform, she stated that she supported judges being elected as opposed to going through an appointment process more compatible with international standards of judicial impartiality. It’s not impossible to imagine her making moves that are counterproductive for democracy.

The INE has been a big focus of media attention, but I would also highlight the INAI, the agency that allows journalists and citizens to submit freedom-of-information requests and shines a light on government corruption. The prospect of the government dismantling these institutions which are crucial for Mexican democracy is cause for concern, especially with the ruling Morena party nearly at a supermajority in Congress, which is needed to change the constitution.

Security is an enormous concern in Mexico and has impacted the election, with 34 candidates across the country being murdered over the course of the campaign. Sheinbaum is seen as having a strong record on security from her time as head of government of Mexico City, but she was also careful not to criticize any of AMLO’s policies. Can Sheinbaum improve the security situation in Mexico?

On the one hand, Sheinbaum has stated that she wants to continue using the national guard for public safety, which it has done for the last 20 years. The military as an institution commands very high levels of confidence from the Mexican people. But militarization hasn’t reduced violence, and it comes with real concerns about human rights, since the military is not designed for public safety.

The fact that there has been no discussion on using civilian institutions to improve security is an ominous sign. But security is not a winning issue in Mexican politics, and I don’t anticipate Sheinbaum would make it central to her messaging.

What we have heard is that Sheinbaum, like AMLO, believes that raising incomes is the way to reduce crime. But this is problematic, because we know that there are many reasons why people participate in organized crime, including a sense of community and perceived social mobility. If it were just about income, that would be good news.

While the new administration can learn from best practices in a place like Mexico City, violence in Mexico has local dynamics—the violence in Baja California, for instance, is not the same violence of a state like Michoacán or Tamaulipas. There are different criminal dynamics at play. You can’t just take something that works in one context and transplant it to another, expecting it to work the same.

On the other hand, in the past, each new administration would create its own security plan and dismantle what their predecessor did, creating challenges in terms of institutional memory. We may be in different territory now, with the same party staying in office.

North of the border, the upcoming presidential election could impact how the United States and Mexico cooperate on security. How do you think Sheinbaum will navigate this challenge?

Whenever election cycles coincide in Mexico and the United States, there is always turbulence. This is particularly true for security, the most difficult area in the relationship. Sheinbaum can’t hit the ground running because she has to wait and see what happens in the United States.

Sheinbaum has spoken of not being subordinate to the United States, that this should be a relationship of partners. This is similar to AMLO’s thoughts on U.S.-Mexico relations. This means that, for example, scolding Mexico in Congress is not going to get the United States very far, even if they’re frustrated about a lack of cooperation. But cooperation can happen to the extent that it’s discrete or is framed as a true partnership. A long overdue starting point would be having mutually agreed upon vetting mechanisms for exchanging information.

One of the thornier issues here has been on fentanyl crossing the border. What are the prospects for better cooperation on that front?

I am cautiously optimistic, but both sides need to agree on facts first. Right now, Mexico and the United States are in a difficult place because of a disagreement over whether Mexico illicitly manufactures fentanyl. The official position of the Mexican government is that it does not. If that stops being the official Mexican narrative, I can see progress being made. The United States also needs to move away from narratives that cast Mexico as a safe haven for criminals who deliberately want to poison unsuspecting U.S. citizens. This is not only untrue, it is counterproductive.

The reason I’m cautiously optimistic about is that one of the people who works most closely with Sheinbaum is Juan Ramón de la Fuente, a doctor who is Mexico’s ambassador to the UN. He has worked on opioid-related issues in Mexico and is part of a group of doctors trying to address this from a public health perspective and push for better information about substance use in Mexico.

Given that, I would hope that the approach to fentanyl in Mexico will change. But it also depends on what kind of partner Mexico has over the next four years. If Mexico is cast—once again—not as a partner, but as a problem south of the border, then we can expect very little progress.

Migration is also a difficult issue in the U.S.-Mexico relationship, one where both the Trump and Biden administrations have depended greatly on AMLO’s cooperation—with controversial results. Will this change under Sheinbaum?

We’ve seen just last week President Biden announce a border policy that critics say is very similar to Trump’s in terms of limiting the ability to claim asylum by arriving in the United States. As you pointed out, the AMLO administration was a departure in terms of its active engagement with the U.S. government to try to stop migrants from Central America moving through Mexico.

The way AMLO has worked with the Trump and Biden administrations is to use the national guard for what they call “rescues,” in which they stop migrants from reaching the U.S. border or return them to their countries of origin. Sheinbaum has said she will continue to use the national guard to disincentivize migrant flows.

Finally, I’d like to ask about energy and trade. AMLO sought to boost the state oil and gas company, Pemex. Will Sheinbaum, a climate scientist, look to do the same? Do you anticipate any shifts when the United States-Canada-Mexico free trade agreement (USMCA) comes up for renewal in 2026?

Sheinbaum says that she wants to invest in renewable energy, which is a good sign. But there were also policies enacted during the AMLO administration that were not climate friendly, and she didn’t oppose them. First and foremost, she’s a politician—and then she’s a climate scientist. If she’ll follow through on promoting renewables remains to be seen.

As for USMCA, it has been made clear by every Mexican presidential administration that trade with the United States is vital for the country’s economy. In 2023, Mexico became the United States’ largest trading partner, in part because the United States is trying to de-risk its economic relationship with China. I don’t foresee a major shift on that because it is so instrumental for the Mexican economy.

Learn more about the Survey of the Quality of Democracy in Mexico, a joint project led by UC San Diego, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and an international research team from UC Santa Barbara, UC Merced, and SIMO Consulting. The project is generously supported by IGCC and Alianza MX.

Thumbnail credit: Eneas de Troya (Flickr)