Listen Now

Mexico’s fractured democracy

Impunity for violence in Mexico is the result of a complex political history, and a sign of a democratic system now in desperate need of reform 

By: /
15 October, 2015
Journalists, photographers and activists hold up pictures of photojournalist Ruben Espinosa during a protest against his murder at the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City, Mexico August 2, 2015. REUTERS/Henry Romero
By: Luis Horacio Nájera

Journalist, writer, and analyst

I never met photojournalist Ruben Espinoza, yet we had a lot in common.

Both of us shared a passion for journalism and photography, working as correspondents for an influential news outlet in Mexico — he for Proceso magazine while I was at Grupo Reforma  and both fled from our place of residence after being threatened because of our job as journalists. What Ruben and I didn’t share was the consequences of our exiles.

While Ruben is dead, I am alive.

On July 31, photojournalist Ruben Espinoza and four women were tortured — all females sexually assaulted too — and later murdered inside their apartment located in Mexico City. Before this horrendous crime, Mexico’s capital was considered a safe place for journalists at risk, since the metropolis has not experienced either the violence of the ‘war on drugs,’ or the harassment against journalists that has taken place in the Northern and Pacific regions reported since 2006.

Espinoza, 31, moved to Mexico City from Veracruz, a state deeply affected by the narco-violence, as well as by a repressive government. Since Governor Javier Duarte took power on December 1, 2010, nine journalists have been assassinated, one is missing and a dozen more — Espinoza included — went into exile. Additionally, human rights activists and politicians opposed to Mr. Duarte’s administration have been threatened.

Furthermore, in August of 2011, Veracruz’ criminal code was amended to include ‘crimes against public disturbance,’ punishing civilians’ use of social media such as Twitter or Facebook to warn people about high-risk situations. A journalist and a teacher were arrested after both tweeted about a group of alleged criminals circulating near an elementary school. They were later freed after national outrage, while the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional two years later.

Veracruz is not an isolated case in Mexico. Instead, it exhibits the deep damage of an institutional fracture and power vacuum that affects democracy, the rule of law and human rights within the country. As power dissolves, ‘gray zones’ characterized by a feudal authority emerge. Since President Enrique Peña Nieto began the second half of his term (the Constitution prohibits re-election), the hope for Mexico is that civil society continue its empowerment and peacefully press for a change in local governments first. A successful case already happened in the industrious state of Nuevo Leon after the election of the first independent candidate as governor.

From kingdom to feudal

From 1929 to 2000, only the centre-right National Revolutionary Party (PRI) held the presidency in Mexico through uncontested elections. For 71 years, the president in turn and his party concentrated — and frequently abused — political power in the country without any limitation, either legal and ethical. In 1990, Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa defined governance in Mexico as “the perfect dictatorship” due to the perennial victory of the PRI, and the ‘hyperpresidencialism,’ or the absolute power exerted by the president.

Internally, the PRI operates under defined yet unofficial vertical rules, a system of rewards and sanctions based on networks of mutual interests and unconditional loyalty that worked well for years. In 1987, distinguished members led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of former President Lázaro, and Pofirio Muñoz, a three-time president of the party, broke and left the PRI under claims of inequality and lack of internal democracy.  In alliance with prominent leaders from the left in Mexico, Cárdenas and Muñoz created the National Democratic Front (FDN) and challenged the PRI in the 1988 election. According to analysts, Cárdenas won the presidency, but the PRI managed to stay in power through an electoral fraud and unofficial agreements with the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN) to get its validation on the results.

Aside from the results in the 1988 election, which accelerated democracy in Mexico, by abandoning the PRI, Cárdenas and Muñoz cracked open the monolithic party. They created a back door for resentful stalwarts who after years of unrewarded loyalty to the system, left the party and found political refuge mostly in the same organization founded by Cardenas and Muñoz, later renamed as the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). 

Finally, on December 1, 2000, the PAN and its flamboyant candidate, Vicente Fox, defeated the regimen after 71 years. As promised in his campaign, President Fox prioritized the fight against corruption and organized crime. Both issues have been historically associated with the PRI, particularly in northern Mexico, a hub for narco-activities because of its strategic location next to the United States. In addition, President Fox continued with a series of reforms implemented since the 1980s that promoted decentralization through a new federalism, and a more equitable balance of power among the three branches of government.

Despite the fact that most of the reforms proposed by President Fox did not pass at congress, and both the anti-corruption crusade and the fight against transnational organized crime fell short, in practice, political power in Mexico indeed changed. In 2002, the National Conference of Governors (CONAGO) was created as a bargaining bloc that achieved additional funds and fiscal benefits for the states, without political interference by the president.   With more money and less political accountability, governors, mayors, congressmen and senators, transformed states in ‘feudal’ zones that returned to the old status quo of political control mastered by the PRI, and also replicated by former priistas governing under the PRD.

Furthermore, the old party managed to retain most of the states that it had previously governed, and by the intermediate elections in 2003, even increased its numbers in the senate and the congress, turning the second half of President Fox’s term into a minority-type government. However, the PAN retained the Presidency after a controversial election in 2006 in which the PRD finished second, and surprisingly the PRI in third place, despite governing 42 percent of the population. It is believed that the majority of the priistas governors rejected the candidate hence they did not supported the campaign, nor mobilized voters on the election.

Feudal lords meet drug lords

On December 2006, just 11 days after taking the presidential oath, and still facing protests and rejection by a large number of Mexicans that claimed fraud against the PRD, Felipe Calderón declared the ‘war on drugs’ against transnational organized crime groups. Since 2001, narco traffickers had begun to fight for control of the drugs trade in the U.S. and the domestic market that expanded within Mexico when security at the U.S. border was enhanced due to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

As narco violence spilled over the country, criminal organizations experienced their own process of fracture or ‘Balkanization,’ when competing smaller groups turned the country into a battlefield. Democracy also impacted dynamics of violence and criminal power particularly in municipalities across the U.S.-Mexico border, where free elections and political alternation broke long-term alliances between criminal groups and politicians who historically mediated or controlled disputes among organizations. Between 2006 and 2013, at least 1,200 public servants — including 30 acting mayors — died in attacks by organized crime.

Yet amid chaos, the ‘war on drugs’ gave governors a significant political leverage by maintaining a strategy of blaming the federal government for the violence, and the lack of enough funding to fight criminal organizations, in particular to resources given by the U.S. through the ‘Merida Initiative.’ Additionally, the financial crisis in the U.S. in 2008, the epidemics of the AN1H1 virus, and the fall in revenue by tourism increased political tension between the state and the federal government.

Also, since homicide is prosecuted by the state, and preventive policing is controlled by the municipalities, governors and majors reinforced their power through a selective application of the rule of law that included protection to notorious druglords as in Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, Zacatecas, and Morelos. In November 2011, the Public Safety Secretariat announced that after two years of formally agreeing to ‘clean’ municipal and state law enforcement agencies of corruption, 70 percent of the states failed to comply with it. Meanwhile, a study by an NGO found that from 2009 to 2011, journalists reported 303 aggressions by public servants, 77 by members of an organized crime group and 27 by partisan members. Another report found that on 58 percent of the attacks against the press, 42 percent of the perpetrators were municipal and 32 percent state police officers. 

The deployment of federal forces involved human rights abuses, as disappearances, torture, homicide and illegal detentions took place in places where the forces operated and, meanwhile, they unsuccessfully reduced crime. From the end of 2005 to the end of 2012, the National Institute of Statistics reported 121,669 homicides, while the Human Rights National Commission 42,300 disappeared, with a high rate of impunity.

Such abuses reinforced locally the outrage to the offensive against organized crime, which reflected on the intermediate elections in 2009 and the presidential in 2012 when PRI increased its control in congress, recovered three states and the presidency previously governed by the PAN.

Back to business

To face the presidential election of 2012, the PRI appealed to the young and good-looking candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor of the State of México politically nourished by the old political establishment within the party. During Peña Nieto’s state administration, violence against women, human rights abuses, kidnaps and impunity increased, yet he won the election with the support of the mainstream media, in particular Televisa, the world’s biggest producer of TV content in Spanish.   

With a polarized society that rejected Peña Nieto as president and saw the return of illegal practices such as the purchase of votes, in 2012 the PRI came back in full power by governing 22 out of 32 states and controlling the congress. Despite the return of a supreme leader of the party, political power was not fully returned to him. Instead, it reinforced feudalism, exacerbated abuses of power and the absence of transparency and accountability by the state. Under Peña Nieto’s administration, drug-related murders declined, but kidnapping and extortion remain high, while violence against activists and journalists by agents of the state increased.

The most emblematic example occurred on September 26, 2014, when a group of 43 students from the Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa were arrested after a series of confrontations with the police. Now, more than a year later, their location remains unknown, perpetrators are free and social outrage continues.  

As a consequence of violence in Mexico, at least 281,400 people have been internally displaced while around 9,000 more fled the country and claimed refugee status overseas. While I am one of those thousands of exiled Mexicans, photographer Ruben Espinoza decided to displace internally, looking for safety and a new beginning.

In order to provide safety and access to justice to all, democracy in Mexico needs to reform.

The triumph in 2015 of former priista (belonging to the PRI) Jamie Rodriguez Calderón as the first independent candidate to win a state election is a new hope for those looking for a peaceful transition in 2018. Political power in the country needs to be redistributed under principles of accountability, transparency and inclusion. Feudal governments need to be transformed and justice needs to be applied.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us