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López Obrador: Unfulfilled Promises of Ending Corruption in Mexico

Updated: Mar 10, 2021


By: Anastasija Kuznecova

Mexico's first leftist president in seven decades, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, got elected in 2018 based on a campaign run on promises of transforming Mexico; from lowering the economic inequality and crime rates in the country, to eliminating corruption. However, two years into the presidency, little seem to have changed.

Since taking office in December 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known by the acronym AMLO, has differed from his predecessors by reducing his own salary, renouncing living in the presidential residence, and promising to fly commercial.

The president has increased social benefits, including pensions, numbers of scholarships, as well as established an allowance for people with disabilities. However, it is not anticipated that they will have significant results on the economy.

Obrador’s policies are not only considered insufficient, his direction towards state-controlled economy and a new law on electricity supply has hurt investors and increased environmental concerns. In 2019, Mexico's real GDP decreased with 0,3%, and the president's poor handling of COVID19 has had further catastrophic consequences for the country's economy, leading to 9% decline in 2020, as well as thousands of deaths, becoming one of the worst-hit countries in Latin America.

Focus on Corruption - Tool for Political Power or Political Change?

Corruption was the most important issue for voters in 2018. When López Obrador took office, he promised to tackle corruption from the top down, starting with the government. In the first months, he went on a cost-cutting spree, specifically with government expenditures as he wanted to eliminate the privileges often enjoyed by politicians. However, this has led to significant losses in the public sector, more specifically surgery delays and reduction in testing in Mexico's public hospitals, objections by judges over their salary cuts, as well as expansion of forest fires as there has been lack of firefighters.

In September 2020, López Obrador received support from the Supreme Court for a referendum on whether to allow five former presidents – Enrique Peña Nieto, Felipe Calderón, Vicente Fox Quesada, Ernesto Zedillo and Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who each served a six-year presidential term between 1988 and 2018 – to be tried for corruption. This move has been criticised by experts, who believe that a referendum should not decide whether criminal acts get a fair trial and proper punishment. Other critics stated that it is a distraction from the government's insufficient management of the pandemic. In addition, López Obrador has suggested to hold the referendum at the same day as mid-term elections in June 2021, which some consider a maneuverer to secure control of the Congress.

The National Anti-Corruption System

The current government has further been criticised for lack of institution-focused reforms, specifically for their inadequate efforts with enforcing the National Anti-Corruption System (Sistema Nacional Anticorrupción, SNA), approved in 2015 and 2016 during the Peña Nieto presidency. SNA is a group of institutions which works as a "mechanism for coordinating the myriad anti-corruption institutions at all levels of government," and it is responsible for the development and implementation of anti-corruption policies. A unique segment of the system is its Citizen Participation Committee, a civilian oversight body which connects the institutions with civil society, whose president also functions as the president of the entire mechanism. With this system, the citizens are getting a bigger role in Mexico's anti-corruption fight.

Despite these efforts, president López Obrador has not fulfilled his constitutional obligation to nominate all the 18 anti-corruption magistrates of the Federal Tribunal of Administrative Justice, which is a part of SNA and is necessary to process sanctions of dozens corruption cases. In addition, the president has ignored to suggest leadership positions for the regional chambers, as well as provided little funding at the state level which has impacted prosecutors' capacity to process cases.

Corruption Allegations

In August 2020, a video of the president's younger brother, Pío López Obrador, receiving cash from a state political operator in 2015 was circulating the news outlets, undermining López Obrador’s promises of fighting corruption. The president promised to get the corruption allegations investigated, but claimed in his defence that the money was donations for his political campaign. According to the Mexican electoral law, donations must be registered. However, requests for documents that prove the money López Obrador’s brother received were legally registered have been ignored.

Public Perception

Despite of the government's lack of institutional reforms, Mexico moved up in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 124 out of 198 countries (compared to 130 in 2019, and 138 in 2018). In addition, in 2019, 61% of citizens thought that the government was doing a good job in their fight against corruption, compared to 24% in 2017, under AMLO's predecessor. Nevertheless, in 2019, 44% thought that corruption had increased in the last 12 months, 34% experienced paying a bribe for public services, and 50% said they were offered bribes in exchange for votes. Furthermore, higher percentage of citizens thought that Mexican institutions were corrupt compared to the results in 2017.

Moving Forward

Amid pandemic's toll and economic consequences, as well as continuing high perception of corruption, the president's approval rating has been persistent around 60%. However, if López Obrador wants to eliminate corruption in Mexico, institutional reforms must be implemented. In addition, discourses of fighting corruption can be used as a tool to gain political power, as politicians can use it against their opposing parties. Thus, current government needs to secure open and fair trials, where the same rules and inspection are applied to López Obrador’s allies.

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Anastasija Kuznecova is a student at the MA program in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. She has field experience from Chile, Jamaica and the Balkans, and her interests include issues concerning social inequality, discrimination, and conflict escalation. With her combined practical experience and academic knowledge, Anastasija has a broad understanding of security, development, and human rights.

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