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On July 2, 2023, Claudia Sheinbaum visited the Yucatan state and met with Yucatecan women (Claudia Shein via Wikimedia Commons)

Can Mexico’s New President Reset Ties with the US?

Claudia Sheinbaum will have to helm a nation with stubbornly high levels of violence, weak institutions, and democratic backsliding.

Words: Lucila Del Aguila Llausás
Pictures: Claudia Shein

On June 2, Mexicans elected former Mexico City mayor and governing party candidate Claudia Sheinbaum as their next president. With a compelling electoral mandate, as well as a qualified majority in Congress, Sheinbaum has vowed to continue her predecessor’s “Fourth Transformation” project, focused on reducing poverty, combatting corruption and promoting social justice and equal income distribution under a strengthened state. Amid this mix of continuity and change, the United States may have an opportunity to rebuild the two countries’ frayed cooperation on security and violence reduction, one of Sheinbaum’s priorities and something that will be impossible for her to achieve without close cooperation with the United States.

First, however, the United States will need to decide whether to turn a blind eye to antidemocratic tendencies taking hold in Mexico and focus on narrow parochial issues in a kind of Faustian bargain or to take the relationship as a whole package. Or there could be a hybrid, slow approach, starting with the most immediate security and migration concerns and building the credibility needed to address issues of democratic backsliding and authoritarian trends in Mexico. 

The challenges that Sheinbaum confronts will be difficult to tackle in a nation with stubbornly high levels of violence, weak institutions, and democratic backsliding. However, she has an opportunity to build on the political capital she inherited from outgoing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — better known as AMLO — while branching out independently and using her talent as a pragmatic problem solver when needed to bring fresh energy and deliver immediate results.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling While Normalizing Discourse

In Mexico’s traditionally patriarchal society, Sheinbaum’s election as president marks the culmination of a long battle by women and feminist organizations, who first demanded the right to vote in 1953 and achieved the approval of a total parity law in 2019. This law allows gender-balanced participation in power and decision-making positions in all spheres of federal, state, and municipal political life. With this last legislative victory, Mexican women have broadened their political presence and now head the National Electoral Institute (INE), the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Secretariat of Governance, the most important position in AMLO’s cabinet. Further, 13 out of 32 states will have female governors after these elections.

Sheinbaum will likely be a breath of fresh air in comparison to the constant, divisive, and polarizing discourse that AMLO conveys every morning in his daily press conference. She grew up in an activist secular Jewish family and has had a successful academic career as a renowned physicist with a Ph.D. in energy engineering and expertise on climate change. Given her academic training and engineer’s approach to problem-solving, she is known for making well-thought-out decisions after analyzing data and consulting advisors, in contrast to AMLO, who has governed based on his emotions and ideological beliefs.

Violence without Control

One of the most pressing issues Sheinbaum will face is criminal and political violence. The latter was a feature during the election, demonstrating the increasing presence and influence of organized crime nationwide. On May 29, Alfredo Cabrera, the opposition candidate running for mayor in Coyuca de Benitez, Guerrero, was gunned down in the middle of a campaign rally. The assassination was captured in a video that quickly went viral and shocked the country four days before the election. It was the culmination of a violent electoral process, with 37 candidates killed, 131 threatened, and 17 kidnapped. Opposition parties suffered the most victims and insisted it was a high risk to campaign. AMLO, in his daily press conference, dismissed such claims and contended that the narrative on violence was just being used to diminish his accomplishments. A day after Sheinbaum´s victory, Yolanda Sánchez, mayor of Cotija, Michoacán, was killed by gunmen in a van while leaving a gym.

But AMLO’s deflection falls flat for Mexicans who have experienced the most violent period in comparison to previous administrations since 2006, with 187,186 homicides since December 2018. AMLO’s counterviolence policy of “hugs not bullets,” which focused on a series of poverty — and inequality — reduction policies for Mexican youth, as well as decriminalizing drug consumption, was an abject failure in a country where the highest cause of death for Mexican youth was homicide. According to Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, a security and crime expert and head of Lantia Consultores, the lack of effective action by the government has made the problem of organized crime more complex, as cartels have increased their territorial presence, obtained more local control, and expanded their activities to extortions, human trafficking and illicit sale of fuel, all while gaining more military capacity and focusing on child and youth recruitment.

As she confronts the issue of crime and violence, Sheinbaum could pay special attention to gender-based violence, which AMLO consistently dismissed, even as Mexico ranked 11th in the world and second in Latin America, only trailing Honduras, for the highest rate of femicides. Despite statistics indicating 10 to 11 women are killed every day in Mexico, and 2,580 murders in 2023, Mexican prosecutors fail to prosecute most of these homicides as femicides, and the families of victims suffer due to inefficiency, lack of interest, and high levels of impunity.

During her campaign, Sheinbaum proposed the creation of a prosecutor’s office that will investigate every homicide of a woman as a femicide, a welcome step given the existing lack of access to justice and revictimization. Her challenge, however, will be to go from intentions to reality in a country whose justice system is weak and relies on the military for public security, a policy she seems intent to continue despite the armed forces’ negative record on human rights and women’s safety and general unsuitability for mainstream police work. She will once again, as usually every upcoming government has done, seek to rebuild an entire broken public security and justice system.   

Rising Authoritarianism, Democratic Backsliding?

Sheinbaum not only won with a landslide majority, 32 points over her nearest opposition rival Xóchitl Galvez, but also her party, Morena and its allies, will obtain a qualified majority in the Chamber of Deputies and a single majority in the Senate. In this case, it will open the door for the approval of AMLO’s 20 constitutional reforms, known as “Plan C,” which will further weaken the system of checks and balances in Mexico’s political system.

This legislative proposal would eliminate proportional representation seats, reduce congressional seats in both chambers, and elect by popular vote all electoral councilors to the INE and judges to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. AMLO also proposes removing all current judges and electing new candidates for the Supreme Court by popular vote, which ostensibly represents the will of the people and not private interests but, in reality will weaken the court’s independence, part of a regional trend.

AMLO also proposes eliminating seven autonomous and regulatory institutions, including the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Data Protection and the Federal Competition Economic Commission, created for government oversight and transparency, which he has openly criticized.

With all these proposed constitutional changes, AMLO will eliminate all accountability checks and concentrate power in the executive, bringing back memories of the authoritarian, populist and all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, presidents from the 1970s and 1980s. The new Congress will be seated on Sept. 1. AMLO, who leaves office on Oct. 1, has said he will push for the approval of the judicial reforms. Sheinbaum, meanwhile, has tried to calm the stock market by insisting that it is necessary to have an open dialogue and achieve a consensus before any reforms are formalized.

Challenges to the US-Mexico Relationship

Sheinbaum will inherit a frayed relationship with Mexico’s northern neighbor, but one that she cannot ignore if she is to achieve the lofty objectives she has laid out. As John Feeley, who served as US deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Mexico City, explained: “The US-Mexico dialogue has become a bit of a kabuki theater, with senior-level leaders professing great satisfaction, but operational-level government officials prohibited from cooperating more closely and both sides feeling frustration.” He also noted that “many Mexican middle class and elites are frustrated that the US has been silent as AMLO has attacked the INE, the press, and consolidated power in the hands of an increasingly powerful executive.”

Sheinbaum’s challenge, Feeley believes, will be to continue the Fourth Transformation while allowing for “a greater level of transparency and genuine frankness in the bilateral relationship on issues such as security, democracy, civil liberties, trade, and migration.”

Sheinbaum will inherit a frayed relationship with Mexico’s northern neighbor, but one that she cannot ignore if she is to achieve the lofty objectives she has laid out.

Given the uncontrolled violence and the expanded presence of organized crime in Mexico, security is a pressing need for both Mexico and the United States. The United States should take the opportunity to approach President-elect Sheinbaum and offer to rekindle strong US-Mexico security and counternarcotics cooperation, as was tried during the early period of the Merida Initiative. Mexico would benefit from a new relationship that builds stronger jointness in security and intelligence institutions, while channeling security assistance to strengthen judicial and security institutions that would more effectively confront violence, combat corruption, and promote transparency. Sheinbaum’s engineering approach to problem-solving, as she showed while mayor, could, after decades, finally lead to a strong foundation for Mexico’s judicial and security institutions that would lead to continuity and permanence, breaking with the destructive and counterproductive reassembling of security and judicial functions every five years. 

Sheinbaum could also draw on her time as mayor, where she worked closely with US law enforcement to curb violent crime and bring down homicides, to convince the radical wing of Morena to put aside its nationalistic stance of opposing US intervention, and accept that given the nature of cross-border crime, the two countries simply need each other as they navigate the violence and mayhem criminal organizations have wrought on both societies. This could be a window of opportunity to increase cooperation and, in the process, give the United States something to build into its additional objectives of curbing authoritarian regression and democratic backsliding, while building greater cooperation on migration.

This article was originally published by the United States Institute of Peace.

Lucila Del Aguila Llausás

Lucila Del Aguila Llausás is a senior program officer with USIP’s Latin America program.

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