Mexico: Setting a “New Social Ethic” of Sustainability?

By Veronica Limeberry*

Maize plot using agro-ecological options in Mexico/ International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s decree phasing out the use of the herbicide glyphosate and genetically modified (GMO) corn has strong support in Mexico – for now – and could conceivably show a way ahead on sustainable development for other countries. Announcing the decree on New Year’s Eve, AMLO framed it as creating a “new social ethic” in food production that puts the wellbeing of the Mexican people before the interests of private companies and profits. The government is moving ahead with implementation of the decree this month despite rapid and harsh pushback from Mexican and U.S. agribusiness. The U.S. Farm Bureau Federation, whose members sell GMO corn to Mexico, appealed to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to oppose Mexico’s move.

  • Advocates of sustainable development have long opposed the use of glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used herbicide. The chemical was declared a probable carcinogen in a 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) report. Concern about glyphosate has surged in Mexico since a 2019 study by the University of Guadalajara found that all 148 children in the study had glyphosate in their urine, and all had chronic health conditions. The herbicide’s producer, Bayer-Monsanto, is in the midst of one of the largest settlements in history ($10.9 billion) involving tens of thousands of suits claiming that it causes cancer and death. Despite these growing concerns, glyphosate sales grew from $3 billion in 2015 to $8.5 billion last year, and industry watchers forecast them to be over $13 billion by 2027.

AMLO’s decree on GMO corn also reflects growing interest in Mexico to reclaim the country’s agricultural biodiversity. Mexico is the center of origin of over 59 food varieties, including corn, beans, squash, and cocoa. Mexican corn has long been part of the country’s national identity. The campaign Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without corn there is no country), launched more than a decade ago, embraces the grain as “the basis of our culture, our identity, adaptability and diversity.” Nonetheless, Mexico imported 18 million tons of GMO corn from the United States in 2020, comprising 40 percent of corn consumption. Seeking to reverse this, progressive deputy agriculture minister Víctor Suárez led the push for the decree and emphasizes “achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty.”

The decree includes radical terminology and establishes agroecology as national policy informed by Mexican food identity and traditions. AMLO and Suárez have defended its emphasis on sustainable, ethical, and increased food production “through the use of agroecological practices and inputs that are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity, and the environment, as well as congruent with the agricultural traditions of Mexico.” The measure has the support of rural communities and both houses of Congress.

  • Some of the AMLO Administration’s rhetoric seems intended to provide leadership to other countries seeking alternatives to herbicides like glyphosate as well as GMO foods while trying to decenter the needs of industry. Numerous studies point to agrarian crises in many countries – such as the farmers’ movement in India – for which AMLO’s move conceivably offers a model. The Mexican decree offers language of community, sovereignty, and wellbeing attractive to advocates of agricultural sustainable development for the future. It will take some time, however, to see if Mexico’s approach persuades others that it can be implemented and retain popular support over the long term.

March 31, 2021

* Veronica Limeberry is a doctoral student at American University focusing on agroecology, food sovereignty, and indigenous territorial rights.

Mexico: AMLO’s Backwards Move on Fossil Fuels

By Daniela Stevens*

Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) Building/ ThinkGeoEnergy/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal early last month to overhaul the country’s electricity market – which appears likely to become law – will betray the country’s climate change commitments, curtail private investment, and hurt consumers. Rooted in 1960s left-wing nationalism, AMLO’s vision is for a state-led, fossil fuel-powered electricity system. It is blind to what many experts consider the urgency for the government to coordinate with the private sector, which he prefers to portray as an adversary, on strategies to curb carbon emissions.

  • The lower Chamber approved the proposal “without changing a comma,” as the President asked. The Senate passed it last night, but the law will face obstacles in court. The Supreme Court in February declared that some guidelines that the Secretariat of Energy presented last May were unconstitutional because they hindered free competition and unduly benefitted the state electricity utility, La Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE).
  • AMLO’s plan reverses the principle of “economic dispatch” – a provision of the 2014 Electricity Industry Law (LIE) that requires the most efficient power plants (those with the lowest production cost) to be the first to upload electricity to the grid. Given the inefficiency of the CFE’s aging hydroelectric and thermoelectric plants, the law currently favors renewables like wind and solar, which are generally inexpensive and in the hands of private investors. AMLO wants to give preference to CFE ahead of private generators.
  • Since hydroelectric plants cannot satisfy electricity demand, the main beneficiaries will be the power plants that generate electricity from fossil fuels. The administration has repeatedly argued, without evidence, that renewables should be downsized because they are unreliable and give undue advantage to private capital. In the President’s view, the initiative would end “price simulation” in a market that favors private participants.

The international community, private sector, and civil society organizations immediately rejected the proposal.

  • The country’s largest business organization, El Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (CCE), called it an “indirect expropriation” of private power plants. Further, the private sector warned that the proposal would lead to national and international lawsuits for state compensation.
  • Diplomats representing the European Union, Canada, and the United States in Mexico said the move will damage the investment climate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the “deeply worrisome” initiative violates the free trade spirit of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), undermining the confidence of foreign investors.
  • Activists and civil society organizations across Mexico said the policy reverses progress toward decarbonization and called it an infringement of international environmental commitments, such as the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.

López Obrador’s response to the criticism has been to claim his proposal restores Mexico’s energy sovereignty and self-determination, but it ignores the reality of the country’s dependence on U.S. natural gas – brought home when last month’s snowstorm in Texas paralyzed production and eventually caused blackouts in 26 of Mexico’s 32 states. Indeed, he flipped the narrative in claiming Mexico’s handling of the crisis was a “success of CFE’s workers,” compared to the “failure” of the liberalized electricity sector in Texas.

  • Relying predominantly on the fossil fuel intensive CFE only deepens Mexico’s vulnerability. Natural gas – 80 percent of which comes from the United States – is used to cover around 60 percent of Mexican energy needs. The proposal also fails to address some deeper issues, such as the lack of storage capacity, diversity in power generation sources, and investment in the electric grid to incorporate renewables.

The move is typical of AMLO’s fixation with grandiose national projects, such as El Tren Maya and the Dos Bocas refinery, both of which will harm the ecosystem of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, and to waste money in obsolete and polluting technology that shows disregard for climate change in favor of short-sighted energy nationalism. The reform not only defies climate issues; it challenges the energy sector’s autonomy, chills the investment environment, and marks a return to monopolistic and authoritarian practices.

March 3, 2021

* Daniela Stevens is an Assistant Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City.

Mexico and Central America: Taking Aim at Corruption in Pharmaceutical Procurement

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Secretary of Health Headquarters, Mexico City, Mexico / Diego Delso / Wikipedia, Not Modified / Creative Commons License

Under pressure to reduce the cost of medications and medical supplies, the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras have resorted to an international facilitator to combat inefficiencies and a lack of transparency in medical procurement while attempting to build their own capacity to manage purchases and reduce related corruption in the future.

  • The Mexican government has been trying to obtain lower prices from manufacturers and distributors of patented or single-sourced medications and medical devices since at least 2008, when it created a Coordinating Commission to Negotiate the Prices of Medications and Other Health Inputs. A pooled procurement mechanism overseen by the country’s Social Security Institute (IMSS) was established in 2013 to purchase pharmaceutical products and medical supplies on behalf of various federal and state agencies. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office at the end of 2018, he labelled the Coordinating Commission as ineffectual and IMSS’ pooled procurement process as hopelessly corrupt – and terminated both. He consolidated purchasing authority for Mexico’s public health sector in the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit, which also proved incapable of handling the task. To address widespread shortages throughout the country that were putting lives at risk, the Secretariat was signing contracts at exorbitant prices.
  • Last July, the AMLO administration executed an agreement with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), a not-for-profit agency based in Copenhagen better known for implementing humanitarian and development projects. For 2021, the Mexican government is expected to spend some $4 billion to procure medications through UNOPS on behalf of federal entities and 26 of Mexico’s 32 states. UNOPS will reportedly net a 1.25 percent commission for what will be its largest single procurement project to date. In 2022, UNOPS will set up an electronic reverse auction system to conduct the bidding process with international suppliers.

Guatemala and Honduras reached out to UNOPS, with good results, years ago.

  • In 2014, UNOPS began assisting the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) and Ministry of Health to establish a more effective and transparent procurement system for purchasing medications and medical supplies. After a year, UNOPS was able to procure medications at costs at 40 percent or more lower than what had previously been paid. Government funding remains a problem, but allegations of corruption in medical purchases have dropped sharply.
  • Following major corruption scandals at Guatemala’s Social Security Institute (IGSS), the Guatemalan government signed a contract with UNOPS in 2016 that involved both procurement and technical assistance to the IGSS to enhance transparency and strengthen its procurement processes. As a result, the Guatemalan government estimates the IGSS achieved an estimated 57 percent reduction in the prices of procured medicines and a 34 percent savings in surgical medical supplies and cochlear implants. The IGSS claims it was able to utilize these savings to, among other things, build new hospitals and extend health insurance coverage to more Guatemalans.
  • These experiences build on Guatemala and Honduras’ participation since 2010 in a mechanism overseen by the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA) to jointly negotiate the prices of medications and medical devices for subsequent purchase by the public health sector in their countries.

Ensuring efficiency and reducing corruption in medical purchases will ultimately depend on the governments’ ability to reform their own systems, not on developing a permanent dependency on UNOPS or other international entities. UNOPS is scheduled to hand the entire procurement system over to the Mexican government in 2024. The recently created Mexican Institute of Health for Well-Being (NSABI) will initially oversee distribution within Mexico, but the AMLO administration has indicated that this function will eventually be taken over by a more specialized agency that will also have warehousing capabilities (including cold storage facilities).

  • AMLO signed an executive decree at the end of October that recognizes the health safety certificates issued by regulatory authorities in other countries as being equivalent to those issued by the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS) in Mexico. The decree also simplifies the process for COFEPRIS to issue certifications for the sale and consumption of all imported medications in Mexico. These moves are intended to undermine the ability of unscrupulous pharmaceutical firms to “capture” the regulatory approval process and thereby hinder competition.
  • The positive experiences in Guatemala and Honduras with UNOPS may encourage reformers in other Latin American countries, as just happened in Mexico, to look to the self- financing UN agency for assistance in clamping down on corruption, ensuring better management of the public health care sector, and implementing modern procurement systems to address the longstanding challenge of getting essential medical supplies to citizens who need them. The COVID 19 pandemic has made health a global priority and exposed serious deficiencies that no longer can be ignored. Without robust and equitable public health care systems, there is no sustainable economy.

December 21, 2020

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is president of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and lecturer with the International Relations Program at Stanford University.

U.S.-Latin America: Who Can Learn from Whom about Elections?

By Todd A. Eisenstadt*

Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas.
Polling station in the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, during the 2003 gubernatorial election in Chiapas./ Dr. Todd Eisenstadt

The irony of an increasingly probable electoral crisis in the United States this year is not lost on observers in Latin America, who have endured multiple challenges to the legitimacy of elections for decades – nor is the irony that the United States could learn from the region’s hard, if still incomplete, lessons in democracy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to raise doubts about the fairness of the November 3 elections have been reported widely in Latin America. Citing unknown sources and unconfirmed events, he has alleged massive voter fraud and predicted court challenges so serious that, he said, it’s especially urgent that his nominee to the Supreme Court be seated immediately.

Such ominous-sounding challenges to elections are not new to most of Latin America. Mexico is not unique in this regard, but I saw its whimsical and exotic election frauds closeup in the 1980s and ‘90s as an international elections observer.

  • In the razor-close 1988 election, the lights went out during the vote count, and by the time they came back on the renegade outsider leftist had lost his lead against the PRI’s candidate. Political operatives called mapaches (“racoons” because they worked only in the dark), breakfast bribes (called Tamale Operations), and voters who made the rounds all day long to cast ballots in different precincts (carruseles or “carrousels”) were common. Crazy Mouse, named after the board game, was a scheme in which opponents of the PRI were sent from precinct to precinct only to be told they were to vote across town. Similar tricks, as well as intimidation, have been common in many other countries. Latin Americans are accustomed to wondering whether the military will have to escort a president who loses an election out the door, but it’s a totally new point of speculation for the U.S. population.

Although still far from perfect, Mexico and other Latin American countries have improved their elections. The unwritten code among political bosses in Mexico has long been to not ruin national institutions (like the postal system) or invite foreign interference (like Russian manipulation of public opinion). But other steps signal a shift away from zero-sum political games.

  • Since the 1990s, post-electoral negotiations to mollify the victors’ opponents – “keep them in the game” rather than make them a destabilizing force – gave them perches from which to eventually mount legal challenges, including rightist Vicente Fox (an interim governor who later became President) and current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 in Citizens United reduced regulation of campaign donations, but Mexico has limited campaign finance and TV advertising. It has encouraged the independence of electoral institutions and set federal standards in all 32 states, which have one voter list matched against one voter ID per citizen – rather than 50 states and 3,000 counties with different criteria. Electoral observers are trained about citizens’ rights and responsibilities, not mobilized out of distrust for the system or to intimidate voters.
  • Since the turn of the century, most Latin American countries have put greater emphasis on the rule of law and tried, albeit inconsistently, to address economic inequality and other threats to democracy and stability. They have also learned the hard lesson that sometimes “dirty elections” must be cleaned through broad citizen mobilization with the support of national and international leaders. Some observers wonder whether the Black Lives Matter movement will expand and evolve into a mobilization akin to the cacerolazos in Chile and elsewhere in the 1980s that helped galvanize opposition to the dictatorships of the era.

The chaos, isolation, and economic pain caused by COVID‑19 make Latin America’s democracy lessons even more pressing for the United States. Voters fear going to the polls and are anxious about trusting balloting systems, such as mail-in voting, that President Trump is trying to delegitimize. The U.S. military, wittingly or not, mobilized troops to support the President’s suppression of civil protests. U.S. voters are in unfamiliar territory.

  • The hemisphere is watching closely if – and how – El Norte figures out how to exorcise the fears and the doubt that are undermining its democracy. Bringing in a slew of smart and seasoned international election observers from Mexico and elsewhere would be a start. So would learning from the Mexican opposition parties how to subvert expediency, especially in the time of COVID, in favor of longer-term discipline for democratization.

October 6, 2020

* Todd A. Eisenstadt teaches political science at American University and is author of several books on democratization, including Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions, for which he observed over a dozen local and national elections there.

Mexico: Competing State Strategies and Results on COVID

By Piper Neulander*

Disinfecting city street in north-central Mexico./ Carl Campbell/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

In the face of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s relatively cavalier attitude toward the COVID‑19 virus, the governors of states as varied as Nuevo León and Oaxaca have implemented contrasting approaches – with different levels of success and political gains. AMLO’s response has been colored by relatively late shutdowns, limited ramping up of national-level coordination mechanisms, and the maintenance of strict austerity despite an extraordinary decline in economic activity. Yet state governments have a large degree of autonomy in Mexico’s federal system, and some have taken advantage of it. Nuevo León – a northern, industrial, relatively urbanized and wealthier state – and Oaxaca – a southern, more rural and poorer state – both initially followed AMLO’s hesitant lead towards the virus, but eventually diverged in their strategies.

Nuevo León

The governor of Nuevo León, independent Jaime Rodríguez, has adopted policies that have departed sharply from federal guidelines. The state began to count private and state labs’ coronavirus tests together and quickly, while the federal government still only had one lab to officially confirm tests. It also used its own measurement system in many industries to allow for slower, safer re-openings – developing 12 measures, rather than the federal government’s four – and cooperated with neighboring states to prevent spread of the disease.

  • These policies gave Nuevo León a fighting chance to slow the spread through its dense population and industrial workplaces. Early testing meant the state had a far more accurate initial count of cases, and local processing of the tests enabled faster action. While these steps made Nuevo León citizens more aware of the spread within their communities early on, they caught medical workers unprepared for the surge, prompting protests over the lack of preparation.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat, who aligns himself closely with AMLO, took advantage of that relationship during the pandemic. The state received federal help from the military to build much-needed hospitals in the region – one of which AMLO personally inaugurated during a tour of the Istmo region. (It was unclear, however, if the hospital actually began operating upon inauguration.)

  • This strong partnership with the federal government, however, made the state vulnerable to the same pitfalls as national-level policies, including inadequate testing and slow identification of virus trends, contributing to striking lethality rates from COVID‑19 in certain Oaxacan counties. The county of Juchitán, for example, experienced an 18 percent fatality rate.

In Nuevo León, Rodríguez saw a huge boost in popularity during the early months of the pandemic – an average of 25 percentage point increase in various polls conducted between March and May. His approval rate for his handling of the COVID crisis specifically was 72.3 percent in June – one of the five highest approval rates among Mexico’s 31 states. In Oaxaca, where polling figures vary, most pointed to a 6.6 percentage point increase in Murat’s approval rate between May and July. Also in June, opinion on compliance with isolation and decreased mobility was at 68.3 percent approval in Nuevo León and 60.6 percent approval in Oaxaca.

The governors’ political fortunes seem to parallel the states’ health results. Rodríguez was successful on two fronts: relative success against the coronavirus, and clear success in grasping the moment for his own political purposes. He was smart to forge his own path against the virus, focusing on essential tools like testing and regional cooperation, and, despite the health workers’ protests, delivering quality care to victims of the disease. Rodríguez was consistent and clear with the public about the risks of the virus, allowed his Secretary of Health to guide a response to the virus, and harnessed his urban, industrially supported state’s strengths in his response, while avoiding many of the mistakes of the federal government. In Oaxaca, Murat’s close adherence to AMLO’s lead placed the state at a disadvantage in combatting COVID‑19. While he did also gain in popularity for his response, the gain was smaller. Much of Oaxaca’s actions were boosted by support from the federal government, making the state-level response less distinguishable from Mexico’s central government strategy.

September 18, 2020

* Piper Neulander is a student in the School of International Service focusing on Latin America.

The Perils of Quédate en Casa: COVID-19 and Gender Violence in Latin America

By Brenda Werth*

Women performing "A Rapist in Your Path" holding up signs

A Rapist in Your Path – Brasília/ Mídia NINJA/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

Stay-at-home orders during the COVID‑19 pandemic have had a devastating impact on women in Latin America and brought mass protests against gender violence to a screeching, and troubling, halt. Since the foundational march of NiUnaMenos in June 2015 in Buenos Aires, Latin American activists have revolutionized protest against gender violence in a spectacularly public way, bringing together hundreds of thousands of women and allies on the streets of major cities to denounce gender violence and demand protection of gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Since its debut last November, the flashmob Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in Your Path), created by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, has been performed in more than 200 cities around the world, decrying the role of the state and police in perpetuating gender violence.

  • Even as the coronavirus began to spread, movements against gender violence continued to expand. In March, millions of women marched to commemorate International Women’s Day to demand an end to femicide and gender inequality. In Madrid, among the posters condemning gender violence were some declaring “The patriarchy kills more than the coronavirus.” By March 15, however, Spain was on lockdown, and by the end of the month most Latin American countries had instituted either partial or total lockdowns. Suddenly, slogans condemning gender violence and demanding gender equality were replaced by the urgent message for people to stay home: “Quédate en casa.”

The stay-at-home orders have had severe consequences for women across the globe. In Latin America, where seven out of 10 femicides take place in the home, the weeks following the institution of quarantines saw surges in the reporting of domestic violence, primarily against women, children, and LGBTQ individuals. Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased 40 percent in Argentina, 60 percent in Mexico, and over 90 percent in Colombia. Financial precarity, unemployment, and lack of access to child and eldercare all exacerbated preexisting gender inequalities, creating a “perfect storm” for domestic violence.

  • Quarantines have proven crucial and effective in countering the health threat posed by coronavirus, but they have left victims of gender violence trapped under the same roof with their abusers. One unintended effect of quarantine is the reinforcement of the perception of domestic abuse as a private, family affair, separate from the public sphere, and excluded from the jurisdiction of the state.

Government responses to the increased domestic violence in Latin America have varied tremendously, ranging from acknowledgment to denial of the crisis.

  • Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister of Women, Genders and Diversity, has issued a resolution explicitly allowing individuals to leave quarantine in order to seek assistance and protection against domestic violence. The Argentine government has also collaborated in building innovative campaigns blending awareness of both pandemics – gender violence and COVID‑19. The Barbijo Rojo (red mask) campaign refers to a code word women may employ when talking to pharmacists to let them know they are at risk of harm and unable to seek out help.
  • In comparison, denial has guided Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s response. His government has failed to implement any major policy changes to address the increase in gender violence during COVID‑19, and he has maintained that 90 percent of calls to domestic violence hotlines are false. According to AMLO, Mexico does not have the same problem as other cultures with domestic violence because “the Mexican family is exceptional.” The government’s campaign to address domestic violence during quarantine, Cuenta hasta 10, asks family members to “count until ten” before expressing anger in the home. According to Lulú Barrera, the campaign lacks “gender perspective” by disregarding the structural causes of gender violence and ultimately puts women at risk by asking them to sacrifice their wellbeing to maintain peace in the home.

While the health pandemic has highlighted the dire need for movements like NiUnaMenos and messages like that of  Un violador en tu camino to continue and expand, stay-at-home orders have halted collective public mobilizations and forced women to return to the private sphere of their homes. The movements have radically transformed awareness and perceptions of gender violence over the last five years, but the current crisis, including the alarming increase in domestic violence, shows the gender-violence pandemic remains strong and could get worse. Protecting public health through stay-at-home orders should not neglect the need to protect women. Solutions must be jointly envisioned and enacted by public health experts, activists, and political leaders.

June 29, 2020

* Brenda Werth is Associate Professor and Department Chair, World Languages and Cultures, at American University.

Lessons Learned from Last Century’s Climate Change Migration

By Elizabeth Keyes*

Then and Now

Left: Migrant Workers in California, 1935/ Dorothea Lange/ U.S. Library of Congress/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)// Right: Central American migrants find quarter in southern Mexico/ Peter Haden/ Wikimedia Commons (modified)

Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States are not the first victims of government policies that discourage migration, send law enforcement to turn them away at a border, ban them from receiving public benefits, and pass laws seeking their immediate repatriation: the Dust Bowl migrants, almost 100 years ago, faced the same fate. Their story is more complex than that of John Steinbeck’s Joad family turning to labor in California’s “factories in the field.”

  • Drought came to Oklahoma and other Dust Bowl states after decades of agricultural practices that prioritized heavy production at the expense of land management and conservation. Corporate farmers favored practices maximizing short-term yield over long-term sustainability. The New Deal bought up farmland, displacing tenant farmers. Relief at the peak of the Dust Bowl in 1934 was mismanaged, and it did not help people stay.
  • Affected residents headed to California, which during a previous economic boom had sought out “migrant” labor from elsewhere in the United States. Many had a relative or friend already in California who could provide a migration pathway, just as happens with migration in 2020. Those with friends or family in the cities fared relatively well, but those who ended up in the labor camps of California’s valleys fared extremely poorly.

As the state’s boom ended in the Great Depression, California made efforts to discourage the migrants, erecting billboards along Route 66 warning would-be migrants that California was no longer an ideal destination. The state criminalized the act of helping indigents migrate, and the Los Angeles Police Department set up “bum blockades” to refuse them entry.

  • California’s responses looked a lot like current efforts to stop migrants seeking to enter along the U.S. border with Mexico: criminalization and walls. Internally displaced persons in the 1930s faced the same kinds of xenophobia that the migrants from outside the United States do today, defining “Okies” as a problematic “other” as if from a foreign country. Although they were, indeed, “fellow Americans” and driven from the land by environmental disaster, it took almost a decade for the U.S. Supreme Court – in Edwards v. California – to clarify that states could not bar migration from other states, and to affirm an ethic of sharing hardships across state lines.
  • The Dust Bowl migrants entered a labor market with strong racial and class inequities. As the United States deported roughly a million Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers between 1929 and 1936 (with an estimated 60 percent of those being U.S. citizens wrongfully deported), the new migrants took over those jobs.

State and international borders differ legally, of course, in critical ways, but the experience of Dust Bowl migrants nonetheless sheds light on the possibilities for Central American and Mexican migrants today. Climate change is again increasing the drivers of environmental displacement, both internal and international, both slow-onset and acute. Just as a focus on environmental justice and sustainable agriculture would have reduced the need for migration out of the Plains in the 1930s, work done now to mitigate and adapt to climate change would help Central American and Mexican farmers stay in place. And in the communities receiving migrants, we see that California adapted and accommodated them once the Supreme Court refused to endorse California’s deterrent strategies. The Court recognized in the strongest terms that California was enduring great upheaval but determined that it could not use its state border to limit that upheaval.

The same Court also routinely upheld the federal government’s right to use the national border to inoculate the country “from difficulties common to all.” International immigration is legally, if not dynamically, morally or philosophically, different from internal migration.

  • Nonetheless, the Edwards decision provides a wonderful exercise in “what if” thinking. Because of the decision, those suffering in Oklahoma and Kansas had a place to go and could build new lives in California, changing the state but not ending it. Indeed, the state has the largest economy of all 50 states and by one measure is the “14th happiest” in the nation. California is an example of state resilience to migration, even dramatic levels of migration.
  • Perhaps the pain of the Dust Bowl – the forces that sent people migrating and the realities they faced in their new homes – offer us important lessons for international migrations caused by climate. There is no international-style Edwards approach, and refugee law offers no good answers. But the full, complicated Dust Bowl history encourages us to move beyond fear and xenophobia to face the challenges forthrightly, knowing that we do have a remarkable capacity for adaptation.

April 15, 2020

* Elizabeth Keyes teaches law and directs the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Mexican Migration Crackdown Creates a “Wall” Before the Wall

By Maureen Meyer and Adam Isacson*

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo

A truckload of military police, wearing National Guard armbands, passes through central Ciudad Hidalgo/ Adam Isacson, WOLA

Facing U.S. threats to impose potentially steep tariffs on Mexican goods last June, Mexico has adopted a series of measures along its southern border with Guatemala that, while somewhat effective at stopping the flow, seems a partial solution with high financial and political costs.

  • Mexican authorities’ apprehensions of migrants in June, after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his threats, reached 31,416. Captures that month and in July were three times greater than the same period in 2018. (The total of migrants and asylum-seekers apprehended by the United States and Mexico last year is estimated to be more than a million.)
  • Mexico deployed nearly 12,000 of its newly minted National Guard troops to the southern border states with Guatemala. Many identify themselves to visitors as “soldiers”; appear to have little (or no) specialized training for migrant interdiction; and wear military uniforms with black armbands that read “GN.” The Guard, however, has not reduced criminal activities against migrants. Local and international experts report that criminal elements assault, rob, rape and kidnap people transiting the area and prosecutors’ offices take little action to investigate these criminal attacks. Observers report that coyotes, working with corrupt officials, arrange safe passage for many migrants on designated “safe buses” for up to US$2,600 per person.
  • Local observers say the enhanced operations have largely shut down what was the most transited of the four main routes through which migrants have traveled in recent times, but some people are learning to take alternate routes through puntos ciegos (blind spots) where government patrols don’t often go and where risks for migrants can be greater. One such corridor, in central Chiapas, seems to continue to be exploited robustly.

The Mexican government has been reluctant to deal with the consequences of its acquiescence to Washington’s demands, according to numerous border-area observers. At its peak, the aggressive patrolling filled detention centers to far over capacity (some at 300 percent capacity) with poor health conditions and alleged mistreatment. Apart from the members of the National Migration Institute’s Citizen Council, officials have restricted independent monitoring of detention facilities by human rights groups and migration specialists. The country’s refugee agency is on the verge of collapse, yet the Mexican government has yet to allocate sufficient resources to it. Over the course of 2019, the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR) received over 70,000 asylum requests – more than double in 2018 – but its 2020 budget is a mere US$2.35 million (4 percent of UNHCR’s budget for Mexico operations).

  • The U.S. push has put the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in a bind. On his first day in office, he signed a decree with Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – from which the vast majority of migrants come – to address the underlying causes of the migration. Another agreement was reached with El Salvador, to fund programs to preserve and create jobs in agriculture. While the Mexican government has not left behind the focus on reducing the “push” factors of migration, it has been largely put on the back burner.

The Mexican government has put managing U.S. relations ahead of addressing the strategic migration problems it faces. It did not push back when the Trump administration announced it would be returning U.S.-bound asylum seekers to Mexico to wait for their hearings through the “Remain in Mexico” program, and under the threat of steadily rising tariffs up to 25 percent on Mexican goods, it has largely complied with nearly all U.S. demands. The results have been mixed, and the costs have been high.

  • Sources in the southern border region report that the National Guard deployment and other Mexican actions over the past seven months have reduced – although estimates range from “not very significantly” to “probably just around 30 percent” – the number of Central American migrants arriving in Mexico. Shelters are not as full as they were in mid-2019, but several remain very full. Data on other nationalities is sketchy, but anecdotal information indicates that Cubans, Haitians, and even Africans continue to find their way to shelters in the area.
  • In complying with U.S. demands, AMLO and his government have risked violating some of their fundamental stated values. AMLO had campaigned on independence, transparency and improved human rights, but the border deployments of the National Guard represent a further militarization of Mexico’s border security strategy – with a significant risk of human rights violations – and the detention of fearful Central Americans and extra-continental migrants in substandard conditions.

January 17, 2020

* Maureen Meyer is Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Adam Isacson is WOLA’s Director for Defense Oversight. The full text of their report is at The “Wall” Before the Wall: Mexico’s Crackdown on Migration at its Southern Border.”

AMLO’s Foreign Policy: A Blast from the Past, or Abandoned Dream?

By Laura Macdonald*

AMLO Cabinet

López Obrador stands with members of his cabinet for an official photo in December 2018/ Prensa AMLO/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Andres_Manuel_Lopez_Obrador_2.jpg

 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office last January with a pledge to focus almost exclusively on his country’s many internal challenges, but international affairs have intruded upon his wish to downplay foreign policy, forcing him to make difficult compromises.

  • AMLO rode into office with the slogan “la mejor política exterior es la política interior” (the best foreign policy is domestic policy). Mexico’s high levels of corruption, impunity, entrenched poverty, widespread violence, and human rights violations were his top priorities. He was elected with a mandate to clean up the political system and crack down on the “mafia of power,” which he and millions of Mexicans perceived as the source of most of their country’s problems. The unpopular foreign policy of his predecessor, PRI president Peña Nieto – who tried to curry favor with President Trump and his family despite the U.S. President’s repeated insults to Mexico and Mexicans – encouraged a more nationalist response as well.
  • In his inaugural speech in the Mexico City zócalo, he laid out an approach to foreign policy based on themes of self-determination, non-intervention, peaceful solution to disputes, development cooperation, defense of human rights, and the rights of migrants. This position is reminiscent of the deeply rooted policy of non-intervention known as the Estrada Doctrine adopted by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the long-time Mexican dominant party, in the 1930s. AMLO’s political roots are in that party and reflect that heritage – he has said he won’t travel outside of the country except to sign international agreements and he skipped the June G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

Nevertheless, the world has intruded upon AMLO. Trump’s statements and actions have forced him to act and react, and Central America’s crises have thrust him into an overwhelmingly hostile regional context. He has had mixed results:

  • Despite his previous opposition to free trade, AMLO made a strategic decision to renegotiate NAFTA and to refrain from direct confrontation with the Trump administration. Mexico was forced to accept various measures that may harm its interests in the long term, including the rules for domestic origin and intellectual property rights.
  • He has continued Mexico’s traditional principles of non-intervention and self-determination – the Estrada Doctrine – and advocated for the recognition of existing regimes instead of meddling in their internal affairs. This position has led to a break with the position of the Lima Group, of which it is still a member, regarding Mexico’s position so far has been vindicated by the failure to date of the Lima Group’s advocacy of regime change and the bellicose position of the Trump administration, but Mexico has not been seen to be playing a leading role in orchestrating negotiations in response to the Venezuelan crisis, and is isolated from the position of the U.S., Canada, and most Latin American states.
  • Despite early statements in which the AMLO administration cast migration as not inherently problematic and called for policies to address the causes of Central American migration, it subsequently shifted its position under intense U.S. pressure and agreed to policies that would limit the numbers of migrants crossing into the United States from Mexico and create a growing humanitarian challenge within Mexico itself.
  • As part of AMLO’s law of “republican austerity,” he has closed trade and agricultural offices in embassiesand consulates around the world, and has eliminated the offices of ProMéxico, which promoted international trade and investment into Mexico. Diplomatic staff, untrained in commercial issues, are supposed to take over their responsibilities. This decision, framed as scaling back the swollen ranks of highly paid public officials, will affect the government’s ability to diversify trade and investment away from the U.S. market and reduce its ability to defend the country’s interests in ongoing trade negotiations.

The AMLO government faces the daunting prospect of trying to respond to Trump without risking economic disaster or losing all shreds of national dignity. In the context of an already globalized economy, Mexico cannot achieve its domestic priorities without a recognition of the importance of foreign policy and active international engagement, in tandem with progressive allies – other governments as well as domestic and international civil society. So far, he has been able to navigate these shoals and retains high levels of popularity at home, but his economic policies focused on re-activation of the domestic market and have not yet born fruit. A more active and progressive foreign policy could help shore up his domestic and international legitimacy as the economy lags.

September 5, 2019

* Laura Macdonald is a Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Does Mexico’s “3×1 Program for Migrants” Encourage Autodefensas?

By Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz and Lauren Duquette-Rury*

Autodefensas

Autodefensa in Michoacan / Esther Vargas / Creative Commons

Mexico’s armed vigilante groups, or autodefensas, are more likely to exist in those municipalities where migrant organizations – called hometown associations (HTAs) – help fund projects back home in collaboration with local authorities. HTAs are voluntary civic associations or clubs located in migrants’ destination countries – the United States for Mexicans – comprised of individuals with a shared attachment to a common place of origin. HTAs raise funds that they send home to fund public goods such as roads, health clinics, potable water, electricity, drainage and sanitation, and schools, often in partnership with government authorities. Since 2002, the Mexican government has run a “3×1 Program for Migrants” that matches the remittances that HTAs send back to their origin community at the local, state, and federal levels of government

  • In a recent article, we analyze data from 2,352 Mexican municipalities in 2002-13 that show that vigilante groups were more likely to emerge in 2013 in municipalities where HTAs participated frequently (six or more times during a 10-year period). The vigilante groups are parochial organizations comprised of private citizens who, acting outside of the formal mechanisms or institutions sanctioned by the state, take up arms to provide security for their communities.

The repeated cooperation between migrants and state and local actors appears to enable community members to act collectively in security and justice matters as well as public good projects. Notably, the depth and frequency of contact are more important factors than the amount of investment and the presence of drug-related violence or activities. Mexico’s vigilante groups apparently are not merely a response to contemporary security crisis, state incapacity, or unequal access to security. Rather, they are a function of citizen capacity enhanced by transnational linkages, strengthened by 3×1, to mobilize collectively to provide security for their communities.

  • In contrast to research indicating that migrant-state transnational co-production partnerships contribute to strengthening democracy by enhancing collective organizational capacity through preexisting levels of social capital, resources, and knowledge, we find that HTAs and their communities can marshal their new capacity to form organizations that carry out informal, non-state, extra-legal armed actions. Autodefensas can threaten state capacity and the rule of law. While they tend to be community-based organizations and have contributed to reducing violent crime, the mechanisms for citizens to hold these groups accountable are limited and human rights violations and extrajudicial killings are common.

The 3×1 Program rules prohibit the funding of private security in municipalities. Program funds could conceivably be misallocated strategically, but doing so to fund nonstate armed groups would entail significant risks and costs. It would be easier for HTAs to simply reallocate their collective remittances toward projects – including public security –  outside of the 3×1 program.

  • The HTA’s motives merit further inquiry. While evidence is lacking to demonstrate that HTAs’ desire to protect their investments is a key factor in encouraging vigilante group formation, they and their local co-sponsors are indeed targets of extortion by criminal gangs. They may be seeking to protect their current and future public goods investments by adapting the successful transnational coproduction model for public good provision to specifically enable vigilante group formation in Mexico. The emergence of return migrants from the United States as key leaders of vigilante groups in 2013 –  including José Manuel Mireles and Luis Antonio Torres (“El Americano”) – makes the question of social and political remittances all the more compelling.

July 23, 2019

* Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz  teaches Politics and Latin American Studies at Bates College and is guest editor with Ana Isabel López García (GIGA-Hamburg) of a Special Issue in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies on how Mexican emigrants respond to and influence political violence in Mexico.  Lauren Duquette-Rury teaches sociology at Wayne State University and is the author of Exit and Voice: The Paradox of Cross-Border Politics in Mexico (University of California Press, 2019).