June 5, 2024

IntelBrief: Violence Plagues Mexican Election as the Country Elects its First Female Leader

AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

Bottom Lin Up Front

  • Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, will become Mexico’s first female president after a historic landslide election result on Sunday.
  • Sheinbaum is the handpicked successor of outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a widely popular figure who has drawn criticism from opponents for curtailing democratic institutions and granting the military too much power.
  • During López Obrador’s six years in office, violence surged, and the growing narco-violence, long a problem plaguing Mexico, has led to discussions about the country sliding toward state failure.
  • The recent election cycle in Mexico marked one of the deadliest in recent years, with 36 people seeking public office killed since last summer, due to what some analysts believe are emboldened cartels spreading fear in local level races.

Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist and the former mayor of Mexico City, will become Mexico’s first female president after a historic landslide election result on Sunday. Sheinbaum won with at least 58.3 percent of the vote according to the preliminary results, while the runner up Xóchitl Gálvez, running on a ticket for a coalition of opposition parties, earned at least 26.6 percent. If the early election results continue to hold, Sheinbaum will have captured a broader share of the vote than any other candidate in decades, according to analysis from the New York Times. The election was reportedly the largest in Mexico’s history according to authorities, with the highest number of voters participating and a record number of electoral seats open. It was also a bloody election season, with dozens of candidates for office killed.

During her campaign, Sheinbaum vowed to continue the legacy of the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO. Founder of the Morena party, López Obrador is a widely popular figure, with policies that have focused on populist social spending. During his presidency, millions of Mexicans have been lifted out of poverty and the minimum wage has doubled. Yet, his critics have emphasized his failure to control rampant cartel violence, the reversal of his predecessor’s energy reforms, granting the military too much power, and pushing forward measures that would undercut democratic institutions, such as the Supreme Court. His harshest critics labeled AMLO a genuine threat to Mexican democracy and mocked his suggestion to approach the cartels with “hugs, not bullets,” as beyond naive and simply dangerous. During AMLO’s six years in office, violence surged, with an estimated 200,000 homicides over that span. Nearly 90 percent of murders in Mexico go unsolved.

Growing narco-violence, long a problem plaguing Mexico, has led to discussions about the country sliding toward state failure, an issue that is gaining traction as a talking point in some U.S. government circles. In some parts of Mexico, the violence is more akin to a criminal insurgency, with cartels using commercial drones to drop explosives on their adversaries. The cartels have grown incredibly powerful over the last decade, expanding their illicit portfolios beyond drug trafficking, to now include human smuggling and extortion. Involvement in fentanyl has kept the cartels’ coffers full and allowed them to continue threatening government officials and law enforcement personnel with ‘plata o plomo,’ which translates to ‘silver or lead,’ and signifies bribery or murder.

This weekend’s election was widely seen as a referendum on AMLO’s leadership. Sheinbaum’s electoral victory seemed to demonstrate voters’ confidence in the outgoing president and their desire to institutionalize changes brought about during his tenure. Although Sheinbaum has gone out of her way to promise she will not be a puppet of her mentor, she has supported many of AMLO’s more contentious policies, including constitutional changes that detractors say would undermine checks and balances.

As a part of a UN panel of climate scientists that received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, many have hoped that Sheinbaum would fulfill her campaign pledge to significantly boost renewable energy to as much as 50 percent by 2030. Yet, she may ultimately be hard-pressed to do so, given that AMLO spent billions shoring up Mexico’s state energy companies, the oil firm Pemex and the power utility CFE. Breaking with AMLO to prioritize climate change policies, particularly on Pemex, which serves as an important national symbol of energy sovereignty for many Mexicans, could prove detrimental to Sheinbaum’s support. Compounding this challenge is the fact that Sheinbaum will inherit a budget with one of the biggest deficits in decades, due to AMLO’s policies. This reality will limit her choices in how to dedicate spending.

Beyond the historic nature of electing its first female president, the recent election cycle in Mexico also marked one of the deadliest in recent years. According to an analysis by the New York Times, 36 people seeking public office have been killed since last summer. One mayoral candidate, Gisela Gaytán, was assassinated in broad daylight at an event on the first day of her campaign, and others have been targeted while at the gym, walking the streets with supporters, and at campaign rallies. Candidates' relatives and party members have also been targeted in violent attacks, including at least 14 relatives of candidates who have been killed in recent months. Demonstrating the brutality, the dismembered bodies of a candidate for city council and his wife were found in Guerrero state in May.

Analysts and law enforcement have pointed to the emboldened cartels, some say due to AMLO’s “hugs, not bullets” policy, and are attempting to spread fear in local level races and expand their reach into extortion rackets, food production, and migrant trafficking. The result has been many candidates dropping out of races, with some political parties pulling out of certain towns after failing to find individuals willing to run for office. Despite the violence, AMLO and some in the Morena party have downplayed the danger, with AMLO even suggesting the killing of Gaytán, a Morena member, was tied to the high levels of violence in Guanajuato state, where her city is located. Yet, the election violence has spread to areas previously unscathed by such attacks, including Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, which has seen at least six people seeking public office killed since December, according to the New York Times. As Sheinbaum has supported AMLO’s approach to cartel violence, and vowed to continue his policies, the situation could continue to worsen as criminal groups become increasingly emboldened and expand their presence into new areas. As rival groups expand, they inevitably infringe on one another’s territory, and competition becomes violent.