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'It's Not Only About Justice': The Many Issues—and Controversies—That Could Determine Mexico's Presidential Election

We sat down with Viridiana Rios, a fellow at the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, to talk about the problems and policies that have shaped this election season.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivers a speech during a rally in Guadalajara, Mexico, on February 11th, 2018.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivers a speech during a rally in Guadalajara, Mexico, on February 11th, 2018.

Tomorrow, Mexicans will take to the polls to choose a new president. Judging by the polling, the election appears to be Andrés Manuel López Obrador's to lose.

The leftist López Obrador is the country's best-known political outsider and has a longstanding reputation as a critic of the establishment. López Obrador's newly created party, the National Regeneration Movement, has never held a large percentage of the seats in the Congress, let alone the presidency, but his party appears on track to win a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies (one of the two houses on Mexico's Congress).

Central to López Obrador's campaign is his desire to tackle bureaucratic corruption, economic inequality, and the country's high rates of violence. Those priorities don't stray far from his competitors: Ricardo Anaya, a member of the National Action Party (PAN), and José Antonio Meade, the candidate of the ruling centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), have both delivered similar promises.

But López Obrador has the advantage of never holding power. He therefore can't be blamed for the current state of Mexican society. To that end, almost all of the blame has placed been on the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto (also of the PRI).

Allegations of political corruption under Peña Nieto run rampant (in no small part thanks to the government's inability—or unwillingness—to implement the anti-corruption reforms it approved in 2016 ). Under Peña Nieto's watch, a number of PRI governors have been investigated or prosecuted for corruption, including Javier Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz, who stands accused of siphoning at least $35 million (USD) of government resources. The administration also came under immense fire after 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College went missing in the state of Guerrero in what has been suspected is a case of police-sanctioned murder.

And these aren't isolated incidents. Violence in the country has increased dramatically over the course of Peña Nieto's tenure: There were almost 30,000 homicides in 2017 alone, making that year the deadliest on record. Things appear no less precarious this year, as May was officially the deadliest month on record.

To find out more about the issues and policies that have shaped this election season, Pacific Standard spoke with Viridiana Rios, a fellow at the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. Rios' research covers the issues of corruption, violence, and economic development. She is the co-editor of The Missing Reform: Strengthening the Rule of Law in Mexico.


What do you think about the former PRI governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, being prosecuted? Does that help show that the PRI is tough on corruption?

I think it was too late. They should of done this in the first two years of the government.

When Peña Nieto ran for office his first commitment was to create an anti-corruption commission; he didn't do that until civil society pressured him. That happened in 2016, four years after he took office. By the time Peña Nieto captured Duarte, it was too late.

PAN's Anaya has been talking about investigating and possibly prosecuting corruption in the Pena Nieto's administration. Do you think this a way for him to go after his political rivals? Is it a kind of one-sided justice for corruption?

Viridiana Rios.

Viridiana Rios.

I have been thinking about that too because we all want Ayotzinapa to be solved. However, we also all know it may be that high-ranking government officials are involved in Ayotzinapa, or at least in canceling research for reasons that are unknown yet.

So when Anaya is saying he is going to fight Ayotzinapa, he is actually saying he is going to start the prosecution against today's administration. Is it up to him to make the decision? Well, probably not. This should be an independent decision taken by the judicial tribunal of Mexico.

López Obrador has talked about corruption as a part of his economic policy. He claims doing so will shore up a huge sum of previously wasted money. Do you agree with his assessment?

In my calculations something like 4 percent of the budget of the federal government is actually lost in corruption. The numbers that López Obrador is providing are probably higher than the savings we will have from corruption.

Though it is real that the government can be way more efficient, and it is also real that corruption is very regressive. When we look at the areas where money is getting lost it is always in the municipalities that are poorer and it is always more in ministers that are focused on development. It's those areas where corruption is happening more.

Have there been any particular policy proposals put forth in this election season that stood out?

López Obrador has an interesting take on how to reduce violence. He has been brutally covered saying that we need an amnesty for criminals with all of the negative implications that that may have. However, the more that he explains his proposals it seems that what he is actually meaning is that we need to start thinking about violence reduction in a more holistic way. Not only enforcement and not only with a militarizing force, but also trying to understand the underlying economic conditions that are creating a group of young people that are either migrating or joining the ranks of drug cartels.

That is really interesting because Mexico has been on a direct war against drug cartels since at least 2007, and it's been proven that every time some of the elite cartel members get captured there is more violence. Clearly just enforcing the law is not enough, because cartels fracture and there are incentives to be part of the cartel. We are, for the first time, having a discourse about the many causes of violence. It's not only about justice and law enforcement issues. It's also about opportunity, access, employment, and poverty reduction.

Can you talk about the political violence that has occurred during the election cycle, with a lot of local politicians being assassinated?

It is unbelievable how much political violence is happening in this country without any coverage. At least 133 candidates have been killed in the 2018 campaign. Also, the amount of journalists that get assassinated in this country is similar to countries that are in war.

The narrative of the government is that violence is the result of drug traffickers killing each other for turf, but clearly that cannot be the only reason. Journalists and candidates are being assassinated because of the general impunity that pervades the country.

Do you think that there are any issues present in Mexican politics or the campaign that have not been covered sufficiently, either here in the Mexican press or internationally?

How economic development hadn't had the same impact for the lower tiers of the income distribution versus the upper tiers is something that people are ignoring. We can't talk of Mexico as a whole country without understanding the many different Mexicos.

The northern states have benefited from NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], from trade, from policies that have been in place since at least 1994; the south has remained the same. This is also because of how the little economic growth that Mexico has experienced had been redistributed.

That's the reason why López Obrador is winning. He is actually talking to the people, the agricultural south, who have been left out of the economic model that Mexico decided to implement with NAFTA. For example, he has been talking about subsidizing agriculture in order to create agriculture of higher value and higher technology. That is something the other two candidates have not addressed. López Obrador is talking a different language than the other candidates.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.