Freedom in the World 2009


Violence associated with organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, rose dramatically in 2008, resulting in the deaths of at least 6,200 people, including several top police officials. Many of the killings were carried out in macabre, ritualized fashion. In response, the government enacted an overhaul of the criminal justice system, signed an aid package with the United States, and continued to deploy troops to the zones most affected by violence. For the third straight year, journalists were subject to severe violence and intimidation, and impunity for their assailants remained a problem.

Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1810 and established itself as a republic in 1822. Seven years after the Revolution of 1910, a new constitution established the United Mexican States as a federal republic. From its founding in 1929 until 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated the country through patronage, corruption, and repression. The formal business of government often took place in secret, and the rule of law was frequently compromised by arbitrary power.

In the landmark 2000 presidential election, Vicente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party (PAN) defeated the PRI nominee as well as the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), capturing 42.5 percent of the vote. The new president assembled an eclectic cabinet that included businessmen and intellectuals, announced plans to overhaul the notoriously corrupt and inefficient law enforcement agencies, and pledged to make Mexico an international leader in human rights.

By 2003, Fox’s greatest achievements remained his defeat of the long-ruling PRI, providing for more open and accountable government, and arresting some leaders of the country’s vicious drug cartels. Solutions to the problems of poverty, corruption, crime, and unemployment, all of which he had promised to address, remained elusive. Elections held in July 2003 confirmed the PRI as the main opposition party both in Congress and in many statehouses.

In 2004, the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, emerged as the front-runner for the 2006 presidential election. In 2005, Fox had to fend off charges that he was behind efforts to impeach Lopez Obrador over an obscure land case. The spat energized Lopez Obrador’s political base, and the prosecution was dropped. As the July 2006 election approached, the campaign of PAN candidate Felipe Calderon sought—with Fox’s help—to paint Lopez Obrador as a dangerous populist in the mode of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. As predicted, the election was extremely close, with Calderon prevailing by a mere 244,000 votes in the initial count.

Lopez Obrador claimed that the result was fraudulent and declared himself the winner. Between July 2 and September 5, the nation remained on edge as Lopez Obrador sought the annulment of the election and a full recount. Many Mexicans—and most international observers—were not impressed with the PRD’s evidence of fraud and resented Lopez Obrador’s seeming lack of respect for Mexican institutions. On September 5, the Federal Electoral Tribunal formally declared Calderon the winner following a partial recount. Though the PAN won the most seats in the congressional elections, with 206 deputies and 52 senators, the PRD elected 127 deputies, thus overtaking the PRI, which elected 106 deputies, for the first time.

Several serious incidents of social unrest occurred in 2006 and 2007. In April 2006, a large demonstration in the town of San Salvador Atenco led to clashes between police and protesters that left two people dead, more than 200 arrested, and legal controversies over police conduct and harsh prison sentences against protesters. An even more serious crisis occurred in Oaxaca, where an attempt by Governor Ulises Ruiz of the PRI to forcefully disperse protesters resulted in the deaths of several demonstrators. In the following months, protesters demanding Ruiz’s resignation engaged in occasional shootouts with paramilitaries associated with the governor, causing over a dozen deaths. Fox avoided sending in federal police until late October, when the situation reached a boiling point with the death of a U.S. journalist. Separately, a long-inactive guerrilla group called the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) mounted a series of sophisticated attacks on oil and gas installations in May 2007 to protest the disappearance of two of its members. Investigations into the whereabouts of the missing men continued in 2008, with a commission of civilian mediators becoming increasingly frustrated with the government’s lack of cooperation.

While in 2007 Calderon managed to forge legislative coalitions with the PRI and occasionally even a faction of the PRD to pass pension, tax, electoral, and judicial reforms, political disharmony increased in 2008 thanks to an attempted reform of the petroleum sector, an ongoing crime wave, and the approach of the 2009 congressional elections. For a second straight year, the PRI outperformed the other two major parties in state and local elections, which were held in seven states in 2008. The PRD also suffered a bitter internal split and long legal battle over its March leadership elections, as a faction aligned with Lopez Obrador competed with a more moderate grouping. After months of recriminations, the Federal Electoral Tribunal confirmed moderate leader Jesus Ortega as the winner.

Violence associated with organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, has worsened dramatically in recent years. The number of killings linked to the problem topped 2,100 in 2006, and after taking office, Calderon began deploying the military in the states most affected. The decision to send in troops, though questioned by some human rights groups, was politically popular. Nevertheless, the number of drug-linked killings increased to over 2,600 in 2007, and the violence was pushed into new areas. The shifting fortunes of the country’s cartels spurred even greater bloodshed in 2008, with at least 6,200 deaths attributed to criminal groups, including those of over 500 police officers and soldiers. The bloodshed was concentrated along the northern border, particularly in zones around Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, but many other states also experienced significant violence. The murders often featured extreme brutality and torture designed to maximize the psychological impact on citizens, authorities, and rival groups.

In addition to homicides, organized criminals increased the volume of kidnappings, extortion, and other crimes. Extortion complaints received by federal authorities alone soared from 1,000 in 2003 to over 50,000 in both 2007 and 2008. Citizen outrage coalesced around the story of Fernando Marti, the son of a wealthy businessman who was kidnapped in June 2008 and subsequently killed by his captors. The boy’s father joined with other civil society leaders to mobilize a massive march in Mexico City on August 30, calling on the government to take action. Public anger was also stirred by a grenade attack, blamed on drug cartels, in the city of Morelia during Independence Day festivities. The blasts killed eight spectators and wounded more than 100. The government took a number of steps to curb the violence and ease popular frustration, including consultations with civic leaders, a series of legal reforms, the signing of a $1.4 billion counternarcotics aid agreement with the United States, the continued deployment of over 25,000 troops, and numerous arrests. However, an October poll revealed that 42 percent of Mexicans thought the government’s strategy had actually exacerbated the situation, as opposed to only 25 percent who thought security had improved. Confidence was further diminished by the assassinations of several top federal police officials in May, followed several months later by the arrests of numerous federal officials on charges of passing information to traffickers.

Also during the year, a political battle over reform of the state oil company PEMEX eventually resulted in the passage of a bill that was perceived as a useful but insufficient first step. The official in charge of the bill, Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino, was killed in a November plane crash in Mexico City, along with top antidrug prosecutor Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos and a dozen others. With its economy closely tied to the United States, the global economic downturn struck Mexico harder and faster than most other Latin American countries, adding an additional layer of uncertainty going into 2009.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Mexico is an electoral democracy. The president is elected to a six-year term and cannot be reelected. The bicameral Congress consists of the 128-member Senate, elected for six years by a mix of direct and proportional representation, with at least one minority senator from each state, and the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, with 300 elected directly and 200 through proportional representation, all for three-year terms. Members of Congress are also barred from reelection, which decreases accountability to constituents and increases reliance on party functionaries for subsequent employment. Each state has an elected governor and legislature.

Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which supervises elections and enforces political party laws, has come to be viewed as a model for other countries. The 2006 elections were considered generally free and fair, despite claims to the contrary by presidential runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD. However, a perceived lack of control during the hard-fought presidential campaign led to many complaints, especially by the PRD, concerning negative advertising and campaigning, often using state resources, on behalf of victorious PAN candidate Felipe Calderon. In response, a major electoral reform was passed in 2007 to strictly regulate campaign financing and the content of political advertising. Supporters argued that the reform would sever the links between politics and Mexico’s often oligarchic business interests. However, critics claimed that the new rules would weaken free speech, diminish the independence of the IFE, and further increase the power of the main three parties (PAN, PRI, and PRD) relative to smaller groups.

Official corruption remains a serious problem. According to the 2008 Latinobarometro poll, the average Mexican felt that 73 out of 100 public officials were likely to be corrupt. In addition, 28 percent of Mexicans stated that they or a relative had been party to a corrupt act in the previous 12 months; notably, this represented a sharp decline from the 2002–05 average of 54 percent. The Mexican prosecutor’s office estimates that between $10 billion and $25 billion in illegal drug money enters the country each year from the United States; the money is then laundered, with ineffective resistance by financial, political, security, and judicial institutions. There is a perception that drug money affects politics, particularly on the state and local levels. In 2008, several local politicians were killed by criminal groups, while the major political parties pledged to bar candidates linked to organized crime from participating in the 2009 congressional elections. Mexico was ranked 72 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Legal and constitutional guarantees of free speech have been gradually improving, but the security environment for journalists has deteriorated markedly.No longer dependent on the government for advertising and subsidies, the competitive press has taken the lead in denouncing official corruption, though serious investigative reporting is scarce. Broadcast media are dominated by two corporations that control over 90 percent of the stations. In 2007, defamation was decriminalized at the federal level, but it remains a crime in many states.

Following a sharp increase in violence in 2006, reporters probing police issues, drug trafficking, and public corruption faced a high risk of physical harm in 2007 and 2008. At least four journalists were killed during 2008, and three others disappeared. Self-censorship has increased, and many newspapers in high-violence zones no longer publish bylines on stories involving organized crime. Press freedom groups welcomed a project to federalize crimes against journalists, but noted that the special prosecutor’s office devoted to investigating these acts had made only slow progress since opening in 2006. While three men were arrested in 2008and charged with the 2006 murder of U.S. journalist Brad Will in Oaxaca, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) complained of weak evidence and procedural irregularities, implying that the wrong men had been arrested. Mexico’s 2002 freedom of information law, despite some limitations, has been considered successful at strengthening transparency. The government does not restrict internet access.

Religious freedom is constitutionally protected and generally respected in practice. However, it is limited in some areas, particularly Chiapas state, and there are frequent reports of harassment of evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Political battles over hot-button issues such as abortion have led to an increase in religious discourse in the public square in recent years. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Constitutional guarantees regarding free assembly and associationare generally respected, but political and civic expression is restricted in some regions. In October 2008, six indigenous people were killed during a confrontation with police after occupying a tourist site in Chiapas. Several dozen officers remained under investigation at year’s end. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), though increasingly active, sometimes face violent resistance, including threats and occasional murders. Although the status of Mexican trade unions as a pillar of the PRI has diminished significantly, independent unions have long faced government and management interference. Informal, nontransparent negotiations between management and politically connected union leaders often result in “protection contracts” that govern employee rights but are never seen by workers. In addition, workers attempting to form independent unions are frequently fired by management.

The justice system remains plagued by delays and unpredictability. In rural areas, respect for laws by official agencies remains tenuous, and coordination between federal authorities and the state and local police forces—which comprise nearly 95 percent of all police—is problematic. Lower courts and law enforcement in general are undermined by widespread bribery. A significant majority of crimes go unreported because the notoriously underpaid police are viewed as either inept or in league with criminals. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and abuse of prisoners persist in many areas. In 2008, a video emerged of police in Guanajuato state teaching trainees how to use torture to extract information from detainees. In many of the most crime-plagued zones, federal police and troops have, upon arrival, simply relieved local police of duty. Prisons are violent and at least 30 percent overcrowded, and pretrial detainees account for up to 40 percent of inmates. Prison riots in September and October 2008 resulted in the deaths of at least 40 prisoners.

In June 2008, Congress passed a major constitutional reform that replaced the civil-inquisitorial trial system with an oral-adversarial one. Experts viewed this as an overwhelmingly positive measure that would strengthen due process and increase efficiency and fairness. An explicit presumption of innocence and stricter rules regarding evidence were also included. Nonetheless, human rights groups raised concerns about the vague definition of organized crime and the substantially weaker protections, including extended detention without charge, afforded to organized crime suspects.

Presidential authority over the armed forces is extensive, but the military has historically operated beyond public scrutiny, and human rights advocates, including the CNDH, have warned that its strengthened counternarcotics role has not been accompanied by increased clarity regarding limitations on its conduct. Over 1,200 complaints of abuse were filed in 2008, including allegations of kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder. Although three soldiers were convicted of rape in a civil court in October 2007, military personnel are generally tried in military courts, even when charged with human rights abuses against civilians, and impunity is the norm in such trials. In addition, an estimated 150,000 soldiers have deserted since 2000, providing a large pool of trained recruits for criminal groups.

Mexican law bans all forms of discrimination, including those based on ethnic origin, gender, age, and religion. Nevertheless, social and economic discrimination has marginalized Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Their ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands and cultural traditions is usually negligible, and many are relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages that lack most essential services. Some indigenous groups, particularly in Chihuahua and southern states, were harmed by the criminal violence in 2008. Separately, in July, Mexico loosened the penalties for illegal presence in the country. Rights groups frequently detail persecution and crime against migrants from Central America, who are often bound for the United States.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse is common, and perpetrators are rarely punished. In February 2007, the government passed a comprehensive law to protect women from domestic abuse, but progress in implementation, particularly at the state level, remained halting in 2008. Mexico is both a source and a transit country for trafficked persons. Internal trafficking is also a problem. The killings of hundreds of women in the U.S. border zone over the last 15 years has remained a controversial subject as the 14-year statute of limitations begins to affect unsolved cases. In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of Mexico’s criminal violence in 2008, the number of women killed rose substantially along with the overall murder rate.

Trend Arrow: 

Mexico received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s inability to protect its citizens and institutions from the pernicious effects of organized crime.

2009 Scores



Freedom Rating


Civil Liberties


Political Rights