Polity: Presidential-parliamentary democracy
Population: 101,700,000
GNI/Capita: $9,023
Life Expectancy: 75
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (89 percent), Protestant (6 percent), other (5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Mestizo (60 percent), Indian (30 percent), white (9 percent), other (1 percent)
Capital: Mexico City

Political Rights Score: 2
Civil Liberties Score: 2
Status: Free

Ratings Change
Mexico's civil liberties rating improved from 3 to 2 due to improvements in the fight against drug-related corruption and narcotics cartels, including the capture and imprisonment of a number of major narcotics traffickers.


Two years after President Vicente Fox bested one of the longest-ruling political regimes in modern history, Mexicans grew impatient with the pace of Fox's ambitious reform agenda and worried about an economic recession. Fox's supporters pointed to a growing string of achievements, such as serious anticorruption initiatives, the opening of secret government files and investigation of past political crimes, and the capture and imprisonment of a number of once-elusive drug kingpins. However, efforts to reform tax and labor laws, and to partially privatize the electricity industry, were stalled in an opposition-controlled congress.

Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1810 and established itself as a republic in 1822. Seven years after the Revolution of 1910, a new constitution was promulgated under which the United Mexican States became a federal republic consisting of 31 states and a federal district (Mexico City). Each state has elected governors and legislatures. The president is elected to a six-year term and cannot be reelected. A bicameral congress consists of the 128-member Senate elected for 6 years, with at least one minority senator from each state, and the 500-member Chamber of Deputies elected for 3 years, 300 directly and 200 through proportional representation. Since its founding in 1929 until 2000, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated the country by means of its corporatist, authoritarian structure maintained through co-optation, patronage, corruption, and repression. The formal business of government took place mostly in secret and with little legal foundation.

In 1999, the PRI nominated, in first-ever open-party competition, Francisco Labastida, hailed by some as the politician's return to the helm of a party ruled during the three previous administrations by technocrats. In September the National Action Party (PAN) nominated Vicente Fox Quesada, governor of Guanajuato. Cuauhtemoc Cardenas took leave of the Mexico City mayoralty and announced he would again lead the Democratic Revolutionary Party's (PRD) national ticket. Despite election-eve polls suggesting Fox would lose, on July 2, 2000, he won Mexico's presidency with 42.5 percent of the vote; former interior minister Labastida won 36 percent of the vote; and Cardenas, just 16.6 percent. By nearly becoming the largest party in the lower house of congress, the PAN won enough state governorships to put the long-ruling PRI in danger of becoming a regional party.

Following his election, Fox selected an eclectic cabinet whose new faces signaled an end to the revolving door of bureaucrats in top positions, and included leftist intellectuals, businessmen, and, as attorney general, a serving general – the latter choice bitterly opposed by human rights groups. The business-oriented Fox also announced plans to overhaul Mexico's notoriously corrupt and inefficient law enforcement agencies, breaking the political ties between the police and the presidency, and curbing the armed forces from the expanding internal security role assigned to them under former president Ernesto Zedillo.

According a recent study by the Mexico chapter of Transparency International, some $2.3 billion – approximately 1 percent – of the country's economic production goes to officials in bribes, with the poorest families paying nearly 14 percent of their income in bribes. Public safety concerns, and related problems of corruption and rights violations by Mexico's police and military, headed the list of seemingly intractable difficulties that experts caution are likely to take a generation to solve, in part because of the large volume of existing legislation that needs to be reformed. As Mexico's drug cartels were decapitated, a new breed of crime leaders came to the fore, criminals that experts say are less violent, but also more efficient and even harder to reign in than their predecesors.

Relations with a heavily split congress, the inability to reach a meaningful reform of immigration policy with the United States, and the continued marginalization of Mexico's indigenous peoples, roughly 30 percent of the population, added to concerns about whether Fox could achieve his reform goals. In November 2002 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said lingering concerns about the security of Americans made it highly unlikely that substantial headway would be made toward an immigration overhaul agreement, one of Fox's top priorities. It is estimated that there are more than 4 million illegal Mexican aliens in the United States. On a positive note, former President Luis Echeverria was questioned by a special prosecutor on possible genocide charges stemming from illegal repression in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The move was hailed as one more step in Mexico's effort to come to terms with its authoritarian past. In a similar vein, federal authorities dismantled an extensive network of corrupt federal employees who for years sold classified information to drug traffickers and organized-crime figures.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Mexicans can choose their government democratically. In 2001 and 2002, opposition parties made gains in state and municipal contests in elections that were generally considered to be free and fair. In most rural areas, respect for laws by official agencies is still tenuous at best, particularly in towns and villages that receive large influxes of dollars from relatives involved in narcotics trafficking in the United States. Lower courts and law enforcement in general are undermined by widespread bribery, despite some early, significant efforts by the Fox government toward reform. Torture, arbitrary arrest, and abuse of prisoners persist in many areas.

Mexico serves as a transit point for some 66 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, as well as being a producer of significant amounts of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Mexico is a source country for trafficked persons to the U.S., Canada, and Japan, and a transit country for persons from various places, especially Central America and China. Internal trafficking is also a problem.

Constitutional guarantees regarding political and civic organizations are generally respected in the urbanized northern and central parts of the country. Political and civic expression, however, is restricted throughout rural Mexico, in poor urban areas, and in poor southern states. Civil-society participation has grown larger in recent years; human rights, pro-democracy, women's, and environmental groups are active.

Mexico's soaring crime rate and lack of effective law enforcement, characterized by an entrenched culture of bribery and disrespect for the law, are serious barriers to economic development. In Mexico City, approximately 80 percent of crimes go unreported because the notoriously underpaid police are viewed as either inept or in league with the wrongdoers; only about 6 percent of reported crimes are solved. Ten percent of all extortive kidnappings in Mexico are believed to be carried out by former or serving police officers. While Colombia is still the hemispheric leader in kidnappings, those are primarily political in nature; experts say that Mexico may hold the world's record for abductions for money. In early 2001, Fox announced a crusade to clean up Mexico's law enforcement system, urging Mexicans to report common crimes and announcing a citizen program to make the police more accountable by making their files more accessible to the public. In 2002, the center-left mayor of Mexico City announced he was hiring former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as a security consultant, a move questioned by rights activists familiar with the New York Police Department's record during the 1990s.

During the outbreak of the still-simmering Chiapas rebellion, Mexico's semiautonomous military was responsible for widespread human rights violations. The growing role of the military in internal security – ostensibly to combat domestic terrorism, drug trafficking, and street crime – has contributed to grave human rights problems, particularly in rural areas. Because Mexico has no foreign enemies, the military serves largely as an auxiliary police force, and in places such as the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, army counterinsurgency units, moving through local civilian populations like an occupying force, continue to cause numerous rights violations.

The media, while mostly private, largely depend on the government for advertising revenue. In 2000, Fox pledged to end the PRI practice of buying favorable stories and vowed to respect the media's independence. Despite the improvements, however, violent attacks against journalists, including cases of murder, are common, with reporters investigating police issues, narcotics trafficking, and public corruption at particular risk. Radio and television stations still operate under a law that allows the government to grant broadcast licenses at its discretion, rather than on the basis of professional criteria. In a positive development, in 2002 Mexico enacted its first freedom-of-information law, which expressly prohibits the government from withholding for any reason information about crimes against humanity or gross human rights violations.

In 1992 the constitution was amended to restore the legal status of the Roman Catholic Church and other religious institutions. Priests and nuns were allowed to vote for the first time in nearly 80 years.

The maquiladoras (export-processing zones) have fostered substantial abuses on workers' rights). Most maquiladora workers are young, uneducated women who accept lower pay more readily, with annual labor turnover averaging between 200 and 300 percent. Workers have no medical insurance, holidays, or profit sharing, and female employees are frequently the targets of sexual harassment and abuse. In the period 2000-2002, an estimated 500 maquiladoras closed as many companies sought even lower wage havens in Asia.

Domestic violence and sexual abuse remain serious problems in Mexico, although the Fox government has pledged to fight a problem that some experts say affects 50-70 percent of Mexican women.

Dozens of labor and peasant leaders have been killed in recent years in ongoing land disputes, particularly in the southern states, where Indians constitute close to half the population. Most of Mexico's 10 million Native Americans live in a situation of de facto apartheid, relegated to extreme poverty in rural villages lacking roads, running water, schools, and telephones. Indian groups say a 2001 constitutional reform designed to strengthen their rights fell far short of addressing their concerns.

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