The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has taken several actions that raise concern over United States – Mexico relations as well as the state of democracy in Mexico. These actions have been somewhat enabled by U.S. foreign policy regarding Mexico, due to its domestic political implications regarding our southern border. In Mexico, there has been a rise in democratic shortfalls including verbal attacks against the media, violence against journalists, and an upcoming referendum that could have long-lasting effects on Mexican politics.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration took a hard stance on U.S. – Mexico relations due to their campaign promises regarding immigration. This hard stance resulted in a simple exchange or deal between López Obrador and Trump, where Mexico helped to regulate and resolve the mass of immigrants, and in turn, the U.S. effectively would not investigate or interfere with Mexico’s domestic affairs. As Trump left office and the Biden administration began, this deal continued to be of importance, and the administration, “turned a blind eye toward López Obrador’s antidemocratic moves because it needs his support in intercepting migrants,” (Foreign Affairs, 2022). The reason this deal did not shift with the change in U.S. power dynamics is because the Democratic Party needs a strong midterm election in 2022 that depends on immigration issues being held at bay. Given how close the previous elections were, the last thing the Democratic Party needs is a heightened border crisis before they attempt to win elections.
With domestic issues maintaining a strong influence on U.S. politics, our southern neighbor has gone through troubling events without a real response from U.S. leadership. While the U.S. may not have the motivation to take direct action, it would be a mistake not to proactively address these evolving issues. The first of these is President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s verbal attacks on journalism and media in Mexico. After it was discovered that López Obrador’s son had “rented a large home outside Houston from an executive of a company that has contracts with a state-run oil company,” well-known journalist Carlos Loret de Mola revealed this on an investigative news site. In response, President López Obrador used time in his Friday morning presser, Feb. 11th 2022, to show a slide depicting, “Loret de Mola’s annual income versus his own income,” to display that the journalist made more than him (NPR, 2022). While this may seem like a small and dismissible act, this was the President portraying the journalist as a part of a corrupt and wealthy class.
The offensive attacks from the President against journalists continued a week later, Feb. 17th 2022, in Tijuana when he said that journalists did not defend the truth and uncover corruption but rather that they are, “hired thugs that do just the opposite,” (NPR, 2022). The President’s view of the media’s role also resulted in a plea to the U.S. government to stop funding entities critical of the government. Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI) is consistently critiqued by President López Obrador for undermining his administration; MCCI receives funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (Reuters, 2022). There has been no response from the U.S. government on the matter, but López Obrador’s plea shows his distaste of even the slightest U.S. involvement in Mexico’s domestic politics.
There is extreme relevance between the Mexican President’s rhetoric around the media and the recent events involving harm to journalists. On February 22nd, television host and model, Michelle Perez Tadeo was found dead on the south side of Mexico City (Reuters, 2022). This news comes just five days after journalists protested in Tijuana to urge President López Obrador to stop the wave of violence against media workers. Just this year, 6 different media workers have been killed in Mexico (Reuters, 2022). The Presidents rhetoric has influenced this violence leading one journalist to plea, “We ask you to stop the messages of hate towards the profession in general, which put us all in the same situation,” (Reuters, 2022). The U.S. leadership did not respond to this situation, except for Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tweet: “The high number of journalists killed in Mexico this year and the ongoing threats they face are concerning. I join those calling for greater accountability and protections for Mexican journalists. My heart goes out to the loved ones of those who gave their lives for the truth,” (Independent, 2022). In response, the President of Mexico exclaimed that Blinken was misinformed and that these were not state crimes, but ironically Blinken didn’t make that claim.
While there is much more to discover about these violent crimes and who acted in these ways, there does seem to be inaction on the states part to protect journalists. Inaction and strong rhetoric against the media does not paint the government in a perfectly innocent light. In an interesting political move to wash doubt from his name, President López Obrador is promoting his own referendum two years before his term runs out (LA Times, 2022). This move appeals to the masses of Mexico who have dealt with corrupt and dishonest leaders over the last couple decades. This move also solidifies his power right before he is supposed to be removed from office. The referendum is likely to keep the President in power, given his approval rating of 66%, which is significantly higher than the past several Mexican Presidents at this point in their presidency (Americas Society, 2022). With his upcoming solidification of power, his push back against U.S. voices, inaction to protect the press, and his attacks against the media President López Obrador is a growing concern for defenders of democracy. These are signs of a leader not simply aiming for a better Mexico but aiming for a consolidated power structure where no one can hold him accountable.
Hi Caleb, this was a very interesting post! Despite being a student of international affairs, I feel like I don’t know a lot about the history or current political climate of Mexico, so I was really excited to read your post and learn more. While the issues at the border are often discussed in American politics, we often don’t talk about the politics in Mexico that affect the issue as well. Recently, I’ve been looking at democratic erosion in Turkey, and it has similar problems to Mexico in terms of the state influencing media and harming journalists, so this was very interesting and troubling to read about. The president of Mexico’s distrust in the media can also be compared to the years President Donald Trump was in power, as much of his rhetoric involved criticizing the media for its alleged spread of “fake news.” However, the United States does not have a history of imposing violence on journalists who spread information that could be harmful to the reputation of a politician, and this is something you mentioned was occurring in Mexico. The organization Reporters Without Borders releases a yearly press freedom index that describes how free a country is in terms of media and journalism. In 2021, journalism was limited in 73% of 180 countries measured by the organization. In 2021, Mexico was placed as 143 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, with 180 being the least amount of freedom. This is extremely low yet fits in with what you have described of what journalists are experiencing in Mexico. Free press is a key component of democracy, and it will be essential to address this problem to maintain democracy in Mexico. It will be interesting to see if the United States addresses this issue in the future and also to keep up with the yearly index to see if Mexico changes positions on the list.
As you correctly have pointed out in your post, US-Mexican relations seem to hinge primarily on migrant issues. In 2016, Trump’s campaign built around a central idea of a border wall and stronger border security allowed him to paint the opposition as open-borders radicals. In 2020, with a moderately improved situation at the southern border, this rhetoric did not have as great an impact. However, it is keenly in the Democrats’ best interest to maintain a relationship with Mexico that ensures a continuing border crisis is averted. Without this central pillar of the modern conservative platform to run on, Democrats can focus on other issues and win votes in 2022 and 2024.
Although Obrador’s victory was a promising prospect (further breaking up the PRI’s single-handed dominance of Mexican politics), it seems that the integrity of the institution of free press is under attack in many corners of the world, including our own backyard. Without free speech and safety for journalists, authoritarians are free to continue dismantling democracy unopposed. Obrador’s actions in your anecdote about de Mola show a clear populist streak and can be chalked up as a continued effort to discredit journalism as a profession. Of course, your later examples paint a far sinister picture; one that is not just about the discrediting of journalism, but active repression and violence. The United States has an obligation to acknowledge Mexico’s troubling activities in recent years and to rectify the situation by encouraging both independent, foreign journalism and local journalism. The ability for populists and authoritarians to consolidate power is dependent on their ability to control the narrative consumed by the voter base. If the unabated oppression continues, free voices criticizing the government may be silenced for the last time, and Mexico may sink into a status quo of illiberalism. Thanks for your post, Caleb.