Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his MORENA party have passed serious budget cuts and restrictions for the National Electoral Institute (INE), which oversees all elections in the country. This is bad news for Mexican democracy, and ultimately, for the United States as well. Already, large-scale protests have erupted across the country, and if nothing is done, risk eventually spiraling into civil war.
To understand the danger López Obrador is putting Mexico in, one has to understand the country’s history. Mexico was a one-party state, governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), for most of the 20th century. The PRI won every presidential and senatorial race from 1929 to 1997 and held a supermajority in the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico’s House of Representatives) every year from 1934 until 1988. While other countries, including Japan and Sweden, have seen parties democratically elected and re-elected for decades in a row, Mexico lacked an independent election agency until the year 1990. Before that, election officials were directly appointed by the president and the ruling party. It is not a coincidence that it was only after this change that the PRI began to every so often lose elections.
López Obrador, who also goes by his initials AMLO, learned from PRI’s mistakes: If he wants to remain in power or have the ability to appoint a compliant successor, he can’t let anyone else be in charge of counting the votes. His proposed cuts to the INE’s budget will make it impossible for it to effectively supervise the next election, and the institute’s ability to punish rule-breaking politicians will also be greatly limited.
AMLO has had beef with the INE since he first ran for president in 2006. He tried to claim victory despite official results showing that right-wing Felipe Calderon had won. And his current rhetoric on election integrity bears a lot of similarities to Donald Trump’s. He claims that the INE cannot be trusted to be unbiased (unlike the lackeys he would appoint in its place) and that the institute is bloated with its $1 billion annual budget. If that sounds familiar, it’s not a coincidence: Without Trump, it is highly unlikely that Mexico would ever have elected AMLO. As a far-left candidate, he rode on a wave of reinvigorated anti-Americanism caused largely by Trump’s rhetoric toward Mexico and its people. Two years after the U.S. elected Trump, Mexico retaliated by electing its own Trump, one with a base of supporters who would physically fight for him and who reject the “deep state” propaganda about how objective election supervision is, actually, you know, a good thing.
The difference is that, while Trump’s brazen attempt to stay in power was never going to stop Joe Biden from becoming president, the Mexican state is much weaker and much more tied to AMLO and his party than the U.S. ever was to Trump and the GOP. We can’t be sure that an insurrection like we saw in the U.S. on January 6 could be quelled in Mexico. The Mexican military, like most in Latin America, is traditionally right-wing, but as David Frum pointed out, AMLO has appointed a number of generals who are loyal to him. If he attempts to be illegally elected to a second term in 2024 (Mexican presidents are allowed to serve only one term), or if, more likely, he attempts to install a puppet successor through election fraud, it is not certain who the military would side with or whether it might splinter into factions. Here is where we could see civil war.
However that turns out, we do know who one of the winners would be: drug cartels. Mexico’s already weak state has made the country a gangster’s paradise, and AMLO’s administration has made it worse with its policy guided by the slogan “Hugs, not bullets.” The state has largely withdrawn from actively fighting the cartels, focusing instead on “progressive” means of stopping crime. These have been no more successful in Mexico than they have in Chicago.
A civil conflict would divert even the very limited law-enforcement and military resources that are still focused on containing the cartels. Plus, whoever wins a hypothetical civil war would find a significant share of the population viewed the government in Mexico City as illegitimate. Many of these people would come to sympathize with the cartels and the proto-states that they have already created, particularly in northern Mexico.
The current crisis would not even have to lead to an outright war. Either side viewing the next election as illegitimate would benefit the cartels, who will gain support and be able to recruit from whichever side is not in charge.
Whatever happens, the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border is about to get a lot worse. The best guard against illegal immigration is a stable and prosperous Mexico, and it is safe to say that as long as AMLO and his party hold power, Mexico will never be either. During his first year in office in 2019, before the pandemic, the Mexican economy shrank for the first time since 2009. It has yet not recovered to its pre-pandemic GDP, unlike many other countries in the region. Despite the slow economic rebound, Mexico has seen rampant inflation, with 2022 having the highest ratein two decades.
It’s not a situation that the U.S. can ignore, even with the risks associated with appearing to meddle in Mexico’s internal affairs. There are ongoing massive protests against AMLO’s naked power grab. Given that he has already accused the protesters of having links to the cartels, and that the military has been used in the past to fight them, he may be seeking a pretext to commit a massacre. A U.S. failure to actively support people fighting to preserve democracy in its own neighbor state would be an abdication of its global leadership role. If Mexico collapses and this creates another large inflow of migrants to the United States, critics of the U.S. aid to Ukraine will argue that the Ukraine “distraction” meant the U.S. couldn’t focus on its own neighborhood.
Nobody could seriously argue that this does not concern the United States. Taking steps to preserve Mexican democracy is neither neoconservatism nor nation-building, but rather common sense. A Mexican collapse would risk millions more people crossing the border to the United States, which would carry great economic and social costs.
Frequent and vocal support for the protesters is the easiest and most obvious step the Biden administration can take. But it should also consider individual sanctions for AMLO, members of his administration, and his party’s elected representatives.
Furthermore, the White House can make it clear that no Mexican government elected without the independent election supervision provided by the INE will be considered legitimate. This means that if AMLO’s party MORENA wins the next election in 2024 after gutting the INE, the U.S. will consider it a rogue government and classify Mexico as a failed state. The U.S. should also make clear that, in this scenario, it will take whatever measures it considers necessary to guarantee the safety of Americans in border states. If Mexico truly becomes a failed state, the U.S. will have to make some hard decisions about what to do. It may have to set up a “protective buffer zone” south of the border so as to ensure that the U.S. is not swamped with more migrant asylum seekers than it can process on its own side of the border, and if necessary, this should happen with or without Mexico’s consent.
Perhaps first and foremost though, the Biden administration needs to recognize how the deterioration of Mexican democracy will affect immigration. Emergency measures and funding are necessary to shore up border security and would be a good precautionary measure. This does not mean building a wall, but it means having real experts (not Kamala Harris) take charge. What is happening in Mexico is a tragedy, and it is in the interests of the U.S. to prepare for the worst-case scenario.