For the past 25 years, Lucía Mixcoatl has sold cactus pads in the sprawling Hidalgo Market in the Mexican city of Puebla. But since the pandemic started, sales of the cactus pads—called nopales and considered a staple of the Mexican diet—have dropped precipitously. “Before the pandemic started, I could sell a thousand or more nopales every day; now I’m lucky if I sell 500 or 600,” she told me through a black KN-95 mask. Each piece sells for about 7 cents, meaning her already modest income, which she uses to support four children as a single mother, has fallen by half. Two of her four children have since dropped out of school, and she’s struggling to pay for an Internet connection for her other kids, who now take classes online.
Mixcoatl is one of over 32 million people employed in Mexico’s informal economy. As in other countries, small businesses in Mexico have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. But government help in Mexico has been sparse: A survey last summer found 61 percent of businesses said they needed financial aid, but only 5.4 percent had received government support. Several states in Mexico have stepped in to offer economic assistance, but it has failed to reach many. In Puebla, Mixcoatl wouldn’t qualify for a pandemic loan made available to formal businesses—which must be paid back over five years at 14 percent interest. “This is exactly the moment that the government should help us, by giving us Internet, providing us more opportunities so our children can stay in school,” said Mixcoatl, who is a member of Puebla’s Popular Union of Street Vendors.
It wasn’t until December that the federal government announced pandemic-specific cash assistance for citizens: a $570 payment to cover funeral expenses should a family member die from Covid-19.
The economic pain felt by Mexico’s poor majority has been compounded by the devastating toll of the virus. According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, Mexico is tied with Peru for the world’s highest case-fatality rate: Over nine of every 100 people known to be infected with Covid have died. Disparities in the country’s health system mean Covid patients checked into public hospitals are far more likely to die than those who can afford private care. The country’s cases spiked in the New Year; today Mexico’s total deaths trail only those of the United States, Brazil, and India.
Throughout the economic and health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office two and a half years ago, has remained optimistic. After the first coronavirus cases were announced in Mexico in March of last year, he suggested that carrying amulets and images of saints would protect Mexicans from Covid-19. Last June, López Obrador said that, together with social distancing, a proper diet, and good hygiene, “not lying, not stealing, and not cheating” helped prevent infection.
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The 67-year-old eventually contracted Covid in January, after months of playing down the pandemic and appearing maskless at public events. After his recovery, he claimed he no longer needed to wear a mask, as he was no longer contagious.
Since the New Year, vaccination campaigns have begun rolling out across the country. In December, doctors and nurses in the public sector were the first to get vaccines; since February one of seven vaccines approved for use by regulators has been made available to seniors and teachers. As of this month, people over 40 can register to access a vaccine. At the time of this story’s publication, just over 10 percent of Mexicans are fully vaccinated.
In the face of the massive disruption stemming from the pandemic, since taking office, the president has pushed forward with many existing plans and projects: promoting “republican austerity” and an end to corruption, vowing to modernize the state oil company, and pushing signature infrastructure projects designed to increase the flow of goods and tourists. As homicides rose, he created a new National Guard and backed increased military participation in civilian affairs.
López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, was elected in July 2018 with a sweeping majority. A political veteran and former Mexico City mayor, it was his third run for the nation’s highest office. His party, the Movement for National Regeneration (Morena), took congress and the senate, as well as winning five gubernatorial contests and control of Mexico City. AMLO campaigned as a progressive candidate, vowing to work for justice for victims of violence; end massacres, which had become widespread during the previous two administrations; and “prioritize the poor, for the good of all.”
AMLO’s win energized Mexican politics and led many to speculate that the country was finally having its turn as part of the “pink tide” of leftist leadership in Latin America. From his first day in office, López Obrador has demonstrated his mastery in carrying out powerful symbolic gestures. On inauguration day, he showed up to the National Palace in his seven-year-old Volkswagen Jetta and immediately opened Los Pinos, the presidential residence, to the public as a cultural center.
His administration has formally branded his six-year term as Mexico’s “Fourth Transformation,” a reference to three seminal periods in Mexican history: Mexican independence, the liberal reforms of the 19th century, and the Mexican Revolution. As president, AMLO declared “the end of neoliberal politics” and demanded apologies from Spain and the Vatican for their role in the conquest and subjugation of Indigenous people. And the National Development Plan, the guiding document of his presidential term, declares “an end to the ‘war on drugs’” in no uncertain terms.
But two and a half years into his administration, the gap between the president’s campaign promises and his actions is widening. AMLO has pushed austerity in the public sector and refused to introduce new taxes on the rich or to budge on his promise to avoid contracting new debt, even in the midst of the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. By early 2021, Mexico had spent less than 1 percent of GDP on pandemic relief (compare that to over 13 percent in the United States).
Cash payments for the most vulnerable have been among AMLO’s key actions toward redistributing wealth: Regular checks are sent to seniors, people with disabilities, students, fishers, and peasant farmers who can qualify for a monthly payment in return for planting fruit trees. Conditional cash payments to poor citizens aren’t new; they began under president Ernesto Zedillo in 1997.
Today these payments have been rebranded under the umbrella of “well-being” (bienestar), to match AMLO’s brand, and are estimated to reach around 14 million people, just less than 1 out of every 10 citizens. The president has claimed that these same programs would assist the most vulnerable during the pandemic, but they fail to cover the majority of working-age adults, including the working poor. The only support available for millions of Mexicans is through family networks and mutual aid.
AMLO’s administration passed an employment law strengthening workers’ rights to independent unions, raised the minimum wage, and pushed some corporations to pay taxes owed to the state. It also ratified the new US-Mexico Free Trade Agreement, and it remains on generally good terms with the country’s largest corporations and richest families. But the signature of AMLO’s presidency thus far has been austerity across the board, with one exception: the army.
“In all the decrees passed so far cutting staff in public administration and lowering spending in line with austerity policies, there’s always a clause in which the armed forces are excepted,” said Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer, a Mexican political economist who is currently an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. “While everything else shrinks, and the rest of the state lives through fiscal scarcity, which is now made worse by the economic crisis, the only sector of the state that has seen its budget—and therefore its power—increased is the military.”
Sánchez-Talanquer likened the president’s stance on the military to a “bait and switch,” in which AMLO promised to rein in the military but instead deepened and expanded its role. Though those outside of the president’s inner circle still don’t know exactly what informed his change of heart, the army’s substantial power, strengthened after over a decade of deployment across the country, cannot be overlooked.
At the outset of his tenure, López Obrador disregarded a diverse coalition of over 300 civil society organizations that demanded the National Guard be a civilian force, as stipulated in the Constitution. Regardless, since 2019 a career soldier has led the National Guard, troops now number over 100,000, the majority of them former soldiers.
Last May, AMLO signed an agreement regularizing the army’s active role in policing until the end of his term. Contrary to AMLO’s promises to end the drug war, the army remains active in enforcing prohibition. On any given day in Mexico, there are an estimated 150,000 armed forces deployed throughout the country, more than half of them devoted to pacification. Soldiers detained more people between September 2019 and September 2020 than in any year since the outset of the war on drugs, and the armed forces continue to confiscate cocaine, marijuana, and fentanyl.
Under AMLO, security forces have taken on an outsized role in the country. Today, soldiers are building the new Mexico City airport and laying tracks for a section of the Tren Maya, building thousands of new banks, and assisting with social programs and vaccine distribution. The Marines, an elite military force with close links to the United States, now control Mexico’s ports; and the National Guard has been made responsible, together with the army, for policing non-Mexican migrants traveling north to the United States.
AMLO has long promised to bring justice in the case of the 43 students disappeared in Guerrero state in 2014. Last fall, when Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos—who was secretary of defense when the students were disappeared—was arrested on drug trafficking charges in Los Angeles, the president initially stated that anyone involved with criminal activity in the army would be investigated and punished. But his declaration of accountability in the ranks quickly rang hollow: The United States deported Cienfuegos back to Mexico in November, and just a few weeks later Mexico’s attorney general cleared him of all charges.
Raymundo Ramos, president of the nongovernmental Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo, was initially hopeful the new administration would help bring justice to the families of dozens of people disappeared by the Marines in that city in 2018. Ramos and Jessica Molina, whose husband was disappeared by Marines that year, twice met with Alejandro Encinas, the sub-secretary of human rights, migration, and population, in the first weeks of the new administration. But things have not gone as promised. “We’re disappointed with the current government,” said Ramos in a phone interview from Nuevo Laredo. “To me it seems that in the end the army has prevented them from carrying out their commitments to victims and the families of victims.”
In April, 30 Marines were arrested in connection to the 2018 disappearances in Nuevo Laredo. Ramos learned of the detentions through journalists, and family members of the disappeared were not properly informed of the arrests. “As long as the federal government continues to blindly support the armed forces while distancing itself from the victims, there won’t be meaningful improvement,” said Ramos.
Tragically, the disappearances have not stopped. The number of people reported disappeared in the country since 2006 now stands at over 85,000. Over 37,800 people have been disappeared since AMLO took office, of whom over 16,000 have yet to be found. According to the head of Mexico’s National Search Commission, there are at least 120 collectives, composed mostly of family members of the disappeared, dedicated to searching for and raising awareness about disappearance. These groups, often led by women, have become a new social force in the country, challenging impunity, government complicity, and the corruption of the justice system in an effort to find their loved ones.
“The truth is that instead of helping us, this government has re-victimized us,” said Silvia Ortiz via WhatsApp. Ortiz is president of Grupo Vida, a search collective in the northern city of Torreón, where her daughter Silvia Stephanie Sanchez Viesca Ortiz was disappeared more than 15 years ago. Recent changes to the Executive Commission for Assistance to Victims (CEAV), which assists families who experienced a disappearance involving state security forces or organized crime, have disqualified many from monthly assistance. “They gave us 12 days to send in all the paperwork to re-qualify for monthly aid,” said Ortíz. “Now they’re saying that we have to make our purchases and bring in receipts, and they’ll reimburse us—but how will this help those that don’t even have enough to buy food?”
Around the country, women’s groups have continued to organize against gender violence. The March 8, 2020, mobilizations for International Women’s Day were among the largest and most widespread demonstrations in recent years. López Obrador’s government instituted gender parity in the cabinet, but the president has not embraced or encouraged the growing women’s movement, which is pushing for access to legal and free abortion and sweeping structural change to end state and domestic violence. Instead, AMLO downplayed gender violence; stood behind his preferred candidate for governor of Guerrero, who faced multiple accusations of rape (he was disqualified from running based on a technicality, and his daughter has continued his campaign); and warned women who protest of being infiltrated and “manipulated by conservatives,” fascists, and authoritarians.
Homicides have continued at a terrifying pace. In 2019 and 2020, there were 71,072 murders in Mexico, marking two of the most violent years in decades. One count based on news reports found that there had been 533 massacres (killings of at least three people) in Mexico during the first nine months of 2020. Some of the massacres made international headlines: the killing of nine members of the LeBarón family, including three babies and three children, in the state of Sonora in late 2019, or the January 2021 massacre of 19 people, the majority of them Guatemalan migrants, near the US-Mexico border. But most massacres fail to become international news, and make only the briefest appearance in the national news cycle.
One such massacre took place in San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca, home to long standing conflicts with regard to local governance and corporate interests in communal lands. But in living memory there has never been an assault as bloody as that which took place on June 21, 2020, when 15 Indigenous Ikoots people were killed, some of them burned to death.
It was late afternoon on Father’s Day when a paramilitary group that survivors link to local authorities used bats and stones to attack 31 people occupying a municipal building. The attackers brought out jugs of gasoline and burned their victims alive. Maria del Rosario Guerra told me the National Guard and state police accompanied the paramilitaries into the community and stood by as her friends and comrades were slaughtered. “The National Guard was there and they didn’t do anything, they were just watching,” said Guerra in an interview in Oaxaca City.
The attack has gone unpunished, and dozens of Indigenous families remain displaced from their ancestral lands. Alejandrino Abasolo Mora, another survivor of the massacre, said security forces watched as the men and women under attack cried for help. “We can’t go back to our lands,” said Abasolo Mora in an interview in Oaxaca City in December. On the six-month anniversary of the massacre, the Ikoots survivors set up tents and a makeshift water tank in Oaxaca City’s central square in an effort to pressure the state government to act against the killers. They cooked simple meals of sardines and vegetables to share, slept in the park, and showered in the homes of supporters. “We fled on June 21, all 16 of us who survived are displaced, not one of us has gone back, and that’s why we’ve come here, six months later,” said Abasolo Mora. They have since disbanded the camp, but remain displaced from their community.
Across the plaza from where the survivors from San Mateo had set up their camp stands another, made up of Triqui Indigenous people who were forced off their lands by paramilitary violence over a decade ago. Though the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Mexico fell to 8,864 in 2019 (from a high of over 23,000 in 2016), the number of violent events that caused displacements has remained steady. A disproportionate number of IDPs in Mexico are Indigenous people.
As violence and the pandemic rage across the country, AMLO’s government has focused on infrastructure projects designed to speed the flow of merchandise and facilitate tourism, and has pushed to build up refinery capacity for the state oil company, Pemex. Once a cash cow for the Mexican state, today Pemex is the world’s most indebted oil company. But the president is determined to turn the tide. In this year’s budget, $16 billion was earmarked for Pemex.
AMLO’s plan for the oil and gas sector includes the building of a new refinery in Tabasco state and the purchase of a share of a US refinery outside of Houston, Tex. It also serves as an example of how his politics sometimes appear to be informed by a desire to return to the past, before free trade and privatization gutted Mexico’s national oil company. Attempting to return to the oil-fueled prosperity of the past, however, means turning a blind eye to the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel extraction and emissions.
Early in his mandate the president scrapped a controversial, partly built airport in the town of Texcoco, putting the army in charge of building a new international airport for Mexico City, which is designed to ease backlogs and delay for travelers coming in and out of one of the world’s largest metropolises. Construction continued apace, even as air traffic dropped by an estimated 50 percent due to the pandemic.
Improving local roads, building new highways, and modernizing ports and airports is part of AMLO’s transportation push. Two major projects in southern Mexico—a train in the Yucatán peninsula and a trade corridor across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—have special standing as presidential priorities.
The “Mayan train” is a 965-mile train loop that would carry tourists by day and fossil fuels and other cargo by night between the beach resorts of the Riviera Maya and the jungle city of Palenque, Chiapas. Particularly controversial are the potential for real estate speculation and the privatization of communally owned Mayan lands, as well as the construction of 19 train stations expected to include new hotels, malls, and other services for tourists in ecologically fragile areas.
AMLO’s government has worked to build a sense of shared decision-making for the president’s priority projects. López Obrador touted a rushed vote in 30 impacted communities as a green light from local communities to proceed with construction, but the United Nations found that the process did not comply with international standards guaranteeing free, prior, and informed consent. “It wasn’t a prior consultation, it wasn’t free or done in good faith, it wasn’t adequate, and the people weren’t well informed,” Sara López, from the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil, told me in an interview in Campeche last year.
The trade corridor between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico, first originated with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 16th century. The idea has been periodically revived by the ruling class ever since. “None of those governments…considered the linguistic and cultural diversity in the region, or the diversity of flora and fauna, or the material and immaterial wealth of this land,” said Victor Cata, a Zapotec language activist and historian based in the city of Juchitán, Oaxaca.
Cata said he remains hopeful that this government’s approach to the region will be different. “We hope that things are done right this time. It’s only the second year, and as citizens we hope things are done properly. In the meantime, we will be doing our work and seeking alternatives in our Zapotec culture and language,” he told me in a phone interview in February.
Construction of the Tren Maya is expected to create 80,000 jobs. Over the longer term, UN Habitat has estimated three quarters of a million jobs will be created in the peninsula, and the government has promised that the industrial parks and transit corridor across the isthmus will generate 400,000 direct and indirect jobs. Both of these mega-projects align with Washington’s desire to encourage increased investment and economic development in southern Mexico so as to stave off migration.
The focus on infrastructure projects like the new airport, the Mayan Train and the trans-isthmic corridor reflect what to some is an outdated and even colonial mode of politics. “What I understand Andrés Manuel López Obrador is doing is attempting to renew the state, and the idea of the nation,” said Ezér May May, a Mayan historian from the town of Kimbalá, Yucatán. He likens the federal government’s push to build the Mayan Train and carry out new territorial planning to a kind of “internal colonialism,” in which Mexico City bureaucrats impose their version of progress on Mayan communities in the country’s south.
When Donald Trump was US president, he and his supporters accused Mexico of failing to control the flow of migrants, primarily from Central America, toward the US border. The so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) were introduced in the second month of AMLO’s presidency, leading tens of thousands of non-Mexican migrants to wait south of the US border, often in informal camps near the border. Though the Mexican government promised to provide “appropriate humanitarian protections,” journalists and human rights workers likened the conditions for migrants awaiting US asylum hearings in Mexico to “concentration camps.” Since late February, 10,000 migrants living in Mexican border camps have entered the United States to begin asylum proceedings. On June 1, the US Department of Homeland Security announced the termination of the MPP.
Scholar Amarela Varela, who has studied migration in Mexico for 20 years, says AMLO’s government has been “a disaster” when it comes to the rights of migrants in Mexico. “There’s no interest in creating state or public policies about asylum and refugees, and no one in the government of the Fourth Transformation is talking about the thousands of families who are…trapped, living without papers, and no one is talking about policies to help them integrate,” said Varela in an interview before the MPP was terminated.
In the summer of 2019, Trump threatened to increase tariffs on Mexican goods arriving in the United States unless the country stopped the flow of migrants to the north, which is when Mexico deployed the National Guard to police migration. At that time, Mexico City and Washington also reaffirmed their commitment to “promoting development and economic growth in southern Mexico.” Previously a staunch critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement, AMLO has since taken a much more pragmatic position, seeking friendly relations with Washington—even under Trump—and Mexico’s elite.
Mid-term elections, set for June 6, will serve as a barometer of public sentiment toward AMLO’s government. Campaigns have taken place amid the pandemic and in a climate of electoral violence. Since this year’s electoral process began in September 2020, 89 politicians have been murdered. Thirty-five of them were candidates competing to win in Sunday’s vote.
As things stand, record remittances from Mexicans working abroad have proven to be an important lifeline to poorer Mexicans, who are fending for themselves through the pandemic. “You have a government that isn’t reacting to the circumstances, that doesn’t have the capacity or the reflexes to adjust its priorities to the situation and the emergency that the population is experiencing,” said Sánchez-Talanquer. “It’s as if it were a zombie, carrying on with certain goals [officials] set out, as if nothing else was happening around it.”
For people like Mixcoatl and others active in the informal economy, their hope remains that the government will step in with assistance. “The government isn’t helping us the way it should be,” said Juan Carlos Morales, who sells clothing at the Hidalgo Market in Puebla. Unlike market sellers, he said, government officials receive a salary whether they work or not. “If we sell something, we can eat meat; if we don’t sell anything, we eat beans, or a tortilla with salt on it.”