Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis recently outlined his vision for the U.S.-Mexico border, which included blocking Mexican ports and sending U.S. forces to Mexico to battle drug cartels. While DeSantis’ proposals are unrealistic, he has touched on a real problem: poor governance and the erosion of democracy under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
This is contributing to a rise in drug trafficking and uncontrolled migration that is being felt throughout the United States. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is taking the short-sighted approach of waiting out López Obrador’s presidency.
Unlike previous administrations, López Obrador has taken a hands-off approach to the cartels, even denying that fentanyl is produced in Mexico. Predictably, the cartels have expanded their power and reach. They have also diversified into extortion, kidnapping, agriculture, mining and other activities. And whenever López Obrador attempts to rein in the cartels, he has deployed the military, resulting in an alarming number of civilian casualties. Mexico has experienced more homicides under López Obrador than during any other administration.
López Obrador’s leadership has been marked by resistance to accountability, animosity toward journalists and civil society, and disdain for democratic institutions. He has gradually shifted many civilian functions, such as infrastructure projects and customs administration, to the military’s control. This shields the president’s initiatives from accountability and may be creating a cadre of military officers who are personally loyal to him.
He has also used his daily press conferences to attack journalists by name. This is troubling in a country already considered the most dangerous for journalists, with 13 killed in 2022. One journalist, Ciro Gómez Leyva, faced an assassination attempt in Mexico City the day after the president insulted him.
López Obrador has consistently sought to dismantle democratic institutions such as the National Election Institute and the National Institute for Access to Information. He has also worked to weaken the country’s nascent anti-corruption system. In response to the Mexican Supreme Court blocking some of his measures, López Obrador accused the justices of being beholden to criminals and threatened to institute direct elections for the judiciary.
Mexico will hold presidential elections in June 2024. While López Obrador is not allowed to run again, he will seek to leverage his popularity to promote the candidate from his Morena party. His party’s success in recent gubernatorial elections in Mexico’s most populous state suggests the momentum favors Morena. And since López Obrador is heavily involved in the nomination process, Morena candidates have an incentive to follow López Obrador’s playbook.
President Joe Biden has made the mistake of giving López Obrador a pass on his authoritarian behavior because of the Mexican president’s cooperative stance on the border. But Biden’s approach produces only limited short-term results. Worse, it fails to recognize how the erosion of democracy under López Obrador strengthens the power and reach of the cartels and exacerbates the conditions that spur migration over the U.S. border.
Biden’s Mexico policy also assumes that Mexico’s 23-year commitment to democracy will continue unchallenged. But democracy has already declined enough that the Economist Intelligence Unit last year downgraded Mexico from a “flawed democracy” to a “hybrid regime.” This label is given to countries that hold elections but do so with “substantial irregularities.” It is clear that López Obrador would prefer something like the one-party system that governed Mexico until 2000.
As López Obrador’s presidency enters its last quarter and Mexico’s 2024 presidential campaign begins to take shape, the dangers of further subversion of Mexican democracy will increase. Given that scores of candidates and election workers were killed ahead of the 2018 elections, and in light of López Obrador’s willingness to disregard democratic norms, the Biden administration should not take clean elections in 2024 for granted.
The administration should pay close attention to López Obrador’s efforts to extend Morena’s rule. In particular, if there are continued attempts to compromise the role of the electoral authority or other institutions, Biden should be prepared to call out any misconduct and express unequivocal support for Mexican democratic institutions. Any further deterioration in Mexican democracy would not only be a disaster for Mexico but would also have grave consequences for the United States and would be a terrible legacy for the Biden administration.