Mexico On Fire

Featured Image: Firefighters work on a burning car  after an operation by security forces against organized crime in Celaya, in Guanajuato state, Mexico June 20, 2020 (Source: Reuters)

By Sofia Godoy

Much of the discourse surrounding Mexico’s backsliding has centered on the precipitous rise of newly elected President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO. While campaigning, AMLO exhibited significant contempt for institutions, regularly deriding them as tools of the so-called “power mafia.” He then carried this attitude into his first year in office, during which he has deployed referendums as a means of bypassing checks and balances and has slashed the budgets of independent agencies such as the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. These moves indicate a clear disdain for democratic procedures and institutions, a worrying anachronism reminiscent of Mexico’s dictatorial days under the PRI. In response, nervous political analysts have sounded the alarm, warning that AMLO will restore autocratic rule in Mexico. But like most authoritarian-leaning leaders, AMLO is only a proximal cause of deteriorating democracy. The fundamental question is why voters were drawn to his theory of change, which favors unilateral action over the rule of law, in the first place. 

A few days ago, my relatives in Mexico called me saying that the streets were sood-laden and littered with burning cars. A few hours ago, my mom informed me that criminals brandishing semi-automatic rifles were terrorizing and setting fire to parts of her hometown. Given that burning is a daily reality for countless Mexicans, it comes as no surprise that national support for democracy as a system, as measured by AmericasBarometer, has tumbled downwards for the past few years. Civilians are disillusioned by rampant crime and growing socioeconomic disparities and, as a result, have lost hope in the benefits of democratic institutions. Throughout his campaign and presidency, AMLO has taken advantage of this collective frustration by arguing that instability continues to grip Mexico because true democracy hasn’t been realized. He claims that the country must forego institutions as its principal incubators of change and yield to the people in order to establish true democracy. Though attractive on the surface, AMLO’s alternative route to democracy hasn’t proven itself effective at curbing criminal violence and income inequality in Mexico. To reverse these trends, as well as to restore civilians’ trust in a democratic future that works for them, the broken security apparatuses and economic structures that explain them must be reformed. Mexican democracy is in a relatively early stage of decay, not yet resembling the scale and magnitude of other democratic crises in Latin America. Still, the new stress added by COVID-19, coupled with persistent physical insecurity, could be the fuel needed to set it ablaze.

With over 170,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, Mexico is the second most hard hit country in Latin America and seventh in the world based on data from Johns Hopkins University. On the ground, Mexican hospitals are so overrun by soaring caseloads that they’re unable to treat their own health workers, many of which have gone on strike to protest the scarcity of personal protective gear. To say the pandemic has brought Mexico’s fragile healthcare system to its knees would be a gross understatement it has absolutely overwhelmed it. Mexicans living below the poverty line have borne the brunt of this breakdown, as social distancing is nearly impossible in the crowded slums where they reside and the essential nature of their work forces them to risk exposure to coronavirus. The disproportionate impact on impoverished Mexicans can also be attributed to the disintegration of Seguro Popular, the public health insurance plan on which they rely. Hailed as an important step towards universal health care when it was rolled out in 2003, Seguro Popular ostensibly covers workers in the informal sector, who are the most economically marginalized of Mexico’s population. However, civilians seeking medical attention at facilities where Seguro Popular is accepted report facing more difficulties than if they had sought care under another plan. Narrow coverage of medicines and services, as well as long wait times and outdated infrastructure, are among the most serious shortcomings of Seguro Popular. Uneven implementation also consistently bars enrollees from reaping the full, albeit limited, benefits of the plan. Efforts to develop hospital infrastructure have been concentrated in major cities, leaving rural and peripheral communities with a shortage of physicians and minimal access to medical treatment. An OECD review illustrates the variation in quality of healthcare across Mexican states: in affluent Mexico City, there are 2.4 beds per every 1,000 residents, whereas in Chiapas, a notoriously poor state, one bed is available per every 2,000 residents. 

Presently, these health inequities are lethal for impoverished workers in the informal sector, whose constant exposure to the outside world makes contracting the virus highly likely. Since such workers account for nearly a quarter of total output, their vulnerability also has substantial repercussions for the Mexican economy. Forecasters at Reuters predict that a COVID-19 driven recession could prevent as many as 70 million Mexicans from earning enough to cover basic needs. That’s 70 million Mexicans, many of them already living from paycheck to paycheck, who would plummet further down the socioeconomic ladder, and come to view democracy as ill-suited for addressing pandemics and other societal woes of comparable severity. 

Along with bleak economic prospects, the state’s ineptitude in healthcare has left a soft power vacuum for criminal elements to fill. Gangs in several Mexican states have become primary providers of much-needed groceries and cleaning supplies, delegitimizing the institutions that should be meeting these needs in the process. This reversal of roles isn’t new. In communities starved of public goods, unaccountable militias frequently take it upon themselves to administer justice through brutal means. These militias, some of which are guises for powerful gangs, have contributed to obscene amounts of conflict. The Brookings Institution reports that since 2006, gang warfare and related violence have caused 37,000 disappearances, 345,000 internal displacements, and upwards of 200,000 deaths in Mexico, suggesting that the state’s approach towards criminal groups needs overhauling. 

Government after government has fallen prey to a toxic “fight fire with fire” mentality. The most visible manifestation of this lies in the rapid militarization of Mexico’s law enforcement, which began under former president, Felipe Calderon. Upon taking office in 2006, Calderon deployed thousands of troops in a bid to end cartel related violence once and for all, but this move had the opposite effect. Extortions and murders rose dramatically throughout its execution, and they have continued to do so as subsequent administrations have similarly sought to use troops in place of police. Whereas police are trained to navigate criminal investigations that can bring gangs to justice, the military is trained to control physical space and confront its targets, making it a driver of conflict. Of course, staggering death tolls in Mexico are not solely explicated by the shift in authority and resources from police to the military. Leaders have also neglected the social roots of organized crime, preferring to impose excessive punishments, target high-value criminal bosses, and employ other harsh, top-down strategies that don’t break the cycle of crime and often backfire. High-value-targeting, for example, splinters gangs into smaller groups that become more violent as they attempt to survive and reestablish themselves. 

Mexico today is a far cry from the bright future that many assumed would flow naturally from its transition to democracy in 2000. Amid a global pandemic, the country’s healthcare system is collapsing, most forcefully on those at the front lines and those with limited access to healthcare. Streets continue to be the sites of exorbitant amounts of bloodshed, as homicides climb to record levels in spite of social distancing and lockdown policies. These crises may seem sudden, but the truth is they’ve been in the making since the PRI was ousted from power and democratic norms began to take hold. For twenty years, the Mexican state has allowed its institutions to remain weak, dysfunctional, and unable to secure the wellbeing of its civilians. The latest threat in a series of governmental failures is that AMLO seems to not comprehend the gravity of the current moment. Instead, he is bent on fanning the flames enveloping the institutions capable of saving Mexico. He has replaced Seguro Popular with an entirely new program that has left some without any coverage at all and jacked up the cost of procedures and medication for the poor. He has opted to create a wholly new security apparatus instead of devoting time and resources to alleviating poverty and empowering local police forces. All the while, outbreaks of both COVID-19 and violence have continued to ravage the country. Evidently, AMLO’s deinstitutionalization is unsupported by the simple fact that Mexico is still burning. To put out the national fire and salvage civilian trust in democracy, his government must interrogate the relationship between socioeconomic status and health as well as rethink its approach to public security. Otherwise, civilians, disappointed by the candidate who they saw as a last hope for true democracy, will abandon their faith in the system altogether, paving the way for a return to authoritarianism. And if that happens, Mexico and my family will soon be ashes. 

Sofia Godoy is a rising sophomore in Saybrook college. You can contact her at