On December 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached half of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s dire human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-won gains in transparency and governance. right that rights groups, activists and activists have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.
The United States has remained noticeably silent in the face of the Mexican president’s accelerated attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the US border.
López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader who has become increasingly mainstream in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by regaining control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social disruption and growing violence.
López Obrador inherited a human rights disaster. When he came to power in 2018, the military’s 12-year war on drugs had led to horrific abuse. Homicides have reached staggering numbers. Thousands of people go missing every year. But he did not address these issues. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to government figures, more than 25,000 people are missing under his watch.
Despite this, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He seems to believe his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and try to control every part of the state to achieve his promised transformation.
He calls anyone who criticizes him or gets in his way as “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this accusation allows her to avoid responding to the real concerns raised by journalists interviewing her, women’s rights activists upset by her lack of action against gender-based violence, indigenous communities who oppose to its megaprojects, the environmentalists who disagree with its coal and oil projects. energy policy and press freedom activists concerned about harassment of journalists by his government, among others.
He has eliminated or proposed to eliminate many government agencies that are not under his direct control, including independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds to protect journalists and respond to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would automatically be granted permits without any scrutiny and that, for “national security” reasons, would be exempt from transparency rules.
He also attacked the courts, which delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the justice system have become brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose decisions he dislikes and called for a judge who spoke out against him to be investigated.
In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law – since rescinded – to extend the term of the chief justice of the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should bring five former presidents to justice for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and “privatization of public property”.
The US policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law became clear in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited and met with him in Mexico. At the end of the trip, a reporter asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude towards the media and civil society.
Harris initially replied that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judiciary, the press and civil society. However, a few hours later, his spokesperson addressed a correction to the Spanish press service EFE, claiming that the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.
López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is ready to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless circumstances change, there is no sign that he intends to change course.
José Miguel Vivanco is Director of the Americas at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.