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Mexico's Undiscussed Reforms

Vidal Romero

The landslide win of Morenain Mexico’s recent elections has massive consequences. A key implication is the high likelihood that AMLO's reform agenda will be approved by the new legislature before the end of his presidential term; and, likely, that this agenda will be implemented by the next administration of Claudia Sheinbaum

 The set of reforms that the Mexican Congress will discuss is ample and diverse. Some topics are issues on which most parties and citizens would agree on the general idea, although there may be disagreement on how to do it, such as public programs for supporting farmers, the young, and the elderly. However, other proposals, especially those regarding security and justice, are highly contentious.  

So far, it seems that the merits and/or contentiousness of each topic are unrelated to the likelihood of their approval. President-elect Claudia Sheinbaum has sent mixed signals. First, she opened the door to revising AMLO’s proposed reforms; but subsequent actions are either openly supporting the reforms as they are (as in the case of military control of the National Guard), or just simulating a revision (such as conducting a public opinion survey to verify the support for the judicial reform). 

There are no surprises here. As a candidate, Sheinbaum ran on a continuity platform and won the election. Thus, the mandate seems to be clear. Yet, wining an election with a clear popular mandate, does not imply that the winning agenda would be successful if implemented.  

At this point, the question for many is not whether the set of reforms would be approved, but whether the reforms are aligned with the preferences of president-elect Sheinbaum or if they are a sort of imposition from the outgoing president López Obrador. This is not trivial, as it would impact on the stability of the reforms in the medium and long term. If Sheinbaum does not really agree with some of the reforms, these changes would likely be short-lived, especially if those are the specific reforms with which the political opposition disagrees. 

 In this respect, both the proposed security and judicial reforms are of particular concern for many, even for relevant actors in the Sheinbaum team who, in the past, have publicly stated their opposition to specific parts of the proposed changes. In many cases, there is no prior evidence for the effectiveness of the proposed reforms. Even worse, for some reforms, there is evidence for their lack of effectiveness. Yet, it is likely that these reforms will pass in Congress. It should be noted, however, that many of these heavy-handed reforms have ample popular support, which reduces the political cost of its approval. 

The challenge is massive. Beyond the different rhetoric that each president presented to the public aiming at positively framing their actions, the previous three federal administrations—of presidents Calderón, Peña Nieto, and López Obrador—have dramatically failed at reducing crime and violence in a sustained way.  

Below is a preliminary brief on the main reforms related to crime and the country’s judicial system. More detailed information regarding these proposed reforms and their implementation is required for a more comprehensive assessment.  

One of the reforms seeks to “prohibit” synthetic drugs and fentanyl. Note that, in the context of Mexico and most other countries, the mere idea of “prohibition” sounds antiquated and ineffective. There is sufficient evidence showing that prohibition regimes on goods with quasi-inelastic demand and in a context of deficient rule of law would tend to create black markets and criminal violence among competitors in these markets. Most experts on the topic agree on the need to regulate drugs in the context of economic markets, as opposed to only penalizing their production, commerce, and consumption. 

 Another contentious reform is the transfer of control of the National Guard, currently under the Citizen Security Ministry, to the National Defense Ministry. The reason argued is the significant and resilient corruption in the former Federal Police (the predecessor of the National Guard) that was under civilian command. The diagnostic is correct, there is evidence of corruption. But, there is no evidence to support the argument that the National Guard would not be corrupted if under military command. In the recent history of Mexico, and many other countries, there is plentiful evidence showing corruption of military personnel at all levels. Additionally, many worry that the lack of accountability by the military, which is stated in the constitution, could lead to increasing human rights abuses. Moreover, there is no solid evidence showing that the military is better at combating crime than civilians. 

 The proposed reform to reinstate the forceful preventive imprisonment is also controversial. On the one hand, there is a clear violation of human rights by incarcerating someone before a trial is finished or there is justified risk of escape. On the other hand, supporters of the reform argue that, given Mexico’s sluggish judicial system, having too many suspected criminals on the streets poses a risk for society, and, because there is some degree of discretion for judges on whether a suspect is at risk of escaping, it provides incentives for corruption. In this discussion, ideally, one would expect that human rights must have preeminence over practical considerations.   

Finally, there is the proposed reform of the country’s federal judicial system. Among experts, there is consensus on the profound need for reform. Yet, there is disagreement over how it should be conducted. Unfortunately, most of the discussion is focusing on a single issue: the popular election of federal judges and magistrates. It is a measure for which there is not sufficient evidence on its effectiveness in other countries (beyond selective and biased accounts of specific cases) and, some experts argue, may work as a means to introduce a majority of partisan judges in favor of the incumbent party, effectively eliminating a check on the executive branch. The reform considers many other issues, which are not so contentious, yet it does not seem that these other issues would actually be discussed; more likely, the reform would be approved as it is. 

 Independently of the merit of the different reforms, it does not seem to be the best way to start a presidential administration by imposing such profound changes without a proper discussion. It closes the doors for retaking dialogue among the different actors, which is fundamental in Mexico’s complex and heterogenous society. 

About the Author

Vidal Romero

Vidal Romero

Professor of Political Science Department at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), Co-Director of ITAM’s Center for the Study of Security, Intelligence and Governance (CESIG), and faculty affiliate at ITAM's Center on Energy and Natural Resources
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more