Blog post by: Ana Isabel Abad

When the international media writes about Mexico it seems like an all or nothing scenario. The headlines in international media have ranged from Time’s February 2014 “Saving Mexico” cover to the Economist’s January 2015 op-ed “The Mexican Morass.” Despite domestic structural reforms and a new international policy stance, the country still has an imminent challenge that is hindering its development and leadership as an emerging power: its capacity to maintain the rule of law and its legitimacy as a democracy upon corruption claims. What will determine the future of Mexico’s role as a potential emerging power?

In order to assert itself as an emerging power, Mexico must overcome its rule of law and corruption challenges. Policy actions towards this goal would allow Mexico to display the typical qualities we see in international leadership including domestic stability, agenda-setting in multilateral forums, and enforcement of international law and agreements. A failure to overcome the fundamental impediments of crime and violence in Mexico will lead the country into social discontent and disintegration. Mexico’s domestic and international actions will determine whether Mexico has enough leverage to assert itself as the leading power in the American continent.

On the domestic front, Mexico has started to structurally transform its institutional approaches to encourage growth as well as transform its international image. When President Enrique Peña Nieto was elected in 2012, the crime and drug-trafficking narrative that had prevailed during the last administration changed to a narrative of a new “Mexican Moment.”[1] President Peña Nieto has since been able to create the necessary congressional consensus to pass over seven reforms including education, energy, telecommunications, political, and fiscal reforms.[2] This type of structural transformation is unheard of in Mexico’s modern history; the simultaneous launch of the structural reforms has the potential of working together to bring overall growth and transformation to the country.

The end of 2014, however, brought considerable national challenges including a student tragedy in Ayotzinapa, the prolongation of long conflicts in specific states, conflict of interest scandals, and a drop in oil prices. In September 2014, the disappearance and assassination of 43 students allegedly ordered by the city’s mayor created mayhem and unrest in the country. Despite public disbelief and shock, the administration’s response was slow and inadequate. The President expressed its condolences and addressed the tragedy one month after the tragedy. Announced in late November, his first proposal on security reform included the reformation of municipal police forces.[3] The national tension rose with the revelation of the construction of a controversial $7 million dollar house for the President and his First Lady, Angelica Rivera. The owner of the house is both a good friend of the Presidential couple and works at a company that had just won a multibillion dollar government infrastructure contract, underlining existing concerns of corruption..[4] In response to this, President Peña Nieto recently launched his new set of proposals including an anti-corruption package. This package appoints a new Minister of Public Administration who will open a direct inquiry on the President’s financial actions.[5] Again, the close relationship between the newly appointed Minister Virigilio Andrade and the President’s administration is raising concerns on the legitimacy of the investigation. In addition to the current crises, Mexico has been struggling with maintaining security in the states of Michoacán and Tamaulipas, states dominated by two of the biggest cartels in the country. Finally, falling oil prices are concerning since they could potentially damage the launch of new private contracts for oil exploration. With less investment, the expected growth rate of Mexico could plummet.

In the international arena, President Peña Nieto visited President Obama in early January as part of a follow up on the High-Level Economic Discussion (HLED) that was inaugurated in Mexico in 2013. Among the issues discussed was immigration, Cuba, economic growth, and new bilateral initiatives including education (FOBESII) and entrepreneurship (MUSEIC) exchange programs. In the past few years, the bilateral relation with the United States has transitioned from a security focus to an economic focus allowing for a stronger partnership. Furthermore, Mexico has shown international awareness by gathering support for a set of programs focused on Central American stability problems and taking an active role in developing these programs through the Tuxtla Mechanism, a partnership between Mexico and Central America to address security concerns in the region.[6] The President’s announcement at the UN General Assembly of Mexico’s contribution to peacekeeping forces is a clear indication of Mexico’s intentions to lead in the international sphere. Finally, the new economic Pacific Alliance initiated by Mexico with Peru, Chile, and Colombia as well as Mexico’s involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiation shows a new commitment to the regions of South America and the Pacific.

Mexico is at a crossroads: its domestic challenges are blocking its international ambition and potential. Mexico’s capacity to overcome its national security concerns would demonstrate Mexico’s perserverant and assertive leadership, but a failure to implement policies would place it back in the failed state discussion. As Wilson Center Global Fellow Luis Rubio asserts in his new book, the Mexican utopia of rule of law is possible through a reform of the executive power that addresses distribution of power and continuation of policies beyond individual administrations.[7] The road ahead is challenging, but with the structural reforms in place and the administration’s recognition of the problem of governmental corruption at the highest levels is a true statement of Mexico’s transformation. It will take commitment and transparency on the government’s side and a true commitment of the Mexican citizens to demand and verify the government’s actions and projects in order to avoid corruption and impunity. As prominent Mexican scholar Claudio Lomnitz recently said, Mexico is in the midst of a moral awakening and revolution and with it, Mexico truly has the possibility to overcome its historical burdens and push forward.[8]

[1] http://www.economist.com/news/21566314-enrique-pe%C3%B1a-nieto-mexicos-newly-elected-president-sets-out-his-priorities-mexicos-moment

[2] http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21611069-enrique-pe-nieto-has-achieved-lot-now-his-government-needs-maintain-momentum-keep-it

[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30341058

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/01/05/world/americas/ap-lt-mexico-scandals-analysis-.html

[5] http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21642246-crackdown-president-targets-himself-first-right-place-start

[6] http://www.radiohrn.hn/l/noticias/m%C3%A9xico-reconoce-anuncio-de-eeuu-sobre-cooperaci%C3%B3n-con-centroam%C3%A9rica

[7] http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Mexican_Utopia_English.pdf

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claudio_Lomnitz