Back to the Future in U.S.-Mexican Relations
from Pressure Points

Back to the Future in U.S.-Mexican Relations

Human rights and the rule of law in Mexico are under siege. It would be a grave error for the United States to believe that its only interests there are trade and border security, and do not include democratic stability.

The government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, is turning back the clock to decades when Mexico suffered the absence of both democracy and the rule of law. The United States remained silent about Mexican internal politics for many decades after World War II, preferring smooth relations to pressure for change—and seems to be following that policy now. That is a mistake that could produce a real crisis in U.S.-Mexico relations in the coming years.

(I explored these issues recently for CFR's Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. The rest of my text is below and can also be found here.)

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Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

U.S. Foreign Policy

In its “Freedom in the World” report for 2000, Freedom House celebrated the democratic progress (and therefore, better Freedom House ratings) of Mexico “due to an opposition party’s victory in national elections for the first time in seven decades and to the government’s decision to retire the military from internal security roles.”[1]

Since then, Mexico has seen several decades of expanding democracy and economic growth. Between 2000 and 2021, Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP) nearly doubled. The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, entered into force in 1994, and by 2008 all tariffs and quotas on U.S. exports to Mexico were removed.

In many ways the story of these advances begins not with the final NAFTA agreement in 1994 nor with the election in 2000, but in the 1980s—when President Ronald Reagan raised the idea of a free trade agreement during his presidential campaign. During his presidency, Reagan visited Mexico six times — no country got more visits — and often brought his full cabinet with him. As a Californian who had governed a state that borders Mexico, Reagan believed that U.S.-Mexico relations were special.

It is true that Mexico was no democracy in the 1980s; it was a one-party state that had been ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since the 1920s. Whatever the friendly rhetoric, we in the Reagan administration knew this; it was obvious that Mexico’s elections were not fair and were sometimes stolen. PRI presidents selected their own successors, and the party made sure they were “elected.” Reagan did not push political change in Mexico, favoring economic progress and stability there as precursors to possible political progress. When I participated in summit meetings between the two presidents and two cabinets, human rights issues, democracy, and stolen elections were all off-limits—and so was high-level corruption. No Mexican president, we knew, ever fell into poverty. As Luis Rubio of the Wilson Center wrote in 2017,  

Mexico’s political system was created in the 1930s to consolidate the political power of the winners of the country’s 1910 revolution and to provide them with access to government posts and money. The resulting system was based on a simple transaction: loyalty to the president, across all political and judicial institutions, in exchange for access to wealth and political power.[2]

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Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

U.S. Foreign Policy

While the United States did not press Mexico to reform its political system in the late twentieth century, change did come—culminating in the victory of the opposition National Action Party’s (PAN) candidate, Vicente Fox, in 2000. Change in Mexico reflected its growing economy, the greater sophistication and education levels of its elites, and the worldwide surge in democratization after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A look at the Mexican presidents who preceded Fox shows the beginnings of change—of a realization that Mexico needed more than old-fashioned PRI politicians to lead it. Prior to the election of Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988), no Mexican president had been educated outside Mexico. But de la Madrid had an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School, and believed in advancing the tecnicos (technocrats) who were well educated and could help keep Mexico out of the kind of economic trouble it had suffered in 1982. His chosen successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had both an MPA and a PhD from Harvard; Salinas’s successor, Ernesto Zedillo, had a PhD in economics from Yale. The PRI leadership was modernizing—though not fast enough to ward off Fox’s victory in 2000. The PRI seemed to understand that Mexico needed not only younger leaders, but leaders who were fully capable of managing a growing and increasingly complex economy. Today Mexico has trade treaties that include the USMCA (the 2020 renegotiation of NAFTA), thirteen Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with fifty countries—including USMCA and FTAs with the European Union, European Free Trade Association, Israel, Japan, ten countries in Latin America, and the eleven-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Turning Back the Clock

But today Mexico’s decades of progress appear to be ending. Symbolically, AMLO’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, was also educated solely in Mexico. After forty years, gone are the days when a Mexican president would have long exposure to and appreciation for the United States, and would hold advanced degrees from world-famous U.S. institutions.

Two decades after the PAN’s democratic breakthrough, the Freedom House 2022 report stated that:

President Lopez Obrador continued to verbally attack his critics and perceived opponents, including media outlets, civil society organizations, and autonomous state institutions, routinely using inflammatory language. Mexico remained one of the most dangerous countries in the world for members of the media. As of November, at least seven reporters had been killed, along with hundreds of threats and attacks attributed to organized crime groups, political officials, and various other actors.[3]

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) stated in its 2023 annual report that in Mexico “reporters were the targets of brutal murders for their work, and the vast majority of perpetrators have not been held to account.”[4]  CPJ later added that “at least thirteen journalists were killed in Mexico in the first nine months of 2022, the highest number CPJ has ever documented in that country in a single year.”[5]

These human rights reports are one way to measure the decline of Mexico, but there are, sadly, many others. Migration of Mexicans to the United States is rising steadily, after many years in which the number of Mexicans arriving and those returning home to Mexico were about even. As the New York Times put it in July 2022:

After declining for more than a decade, the number of Mexicans seeking to migrate to the United States is surging. Since 2020, a combination of growing violence across Mexico and a worsening economy has led to the first jump in Mexican migration in a decade.[6]

The extent of the violence is visible in the U.S. State Department’s travel warning for Mexico, which now says “Do Not Travel” to six Mexican states, “Reconsider Travel” to seven more, and “Exercise Increased Caution When Traveling To” all but two others.[7]

Meanwhile, AMLO continues to disassemble Mexico’s democracy, most recently by gutting the previously independent National Electoral Institute (INE). While Mexico’s constitution does not permit reelection, AMLO can try to fix the elections so that his MORENA Party’s candidate succeeds him and the party wins a majority in the Congress as well.

The U.S. Reaction

Does the decline and perhaps the end of Mexico’s democracy matter? After all, one can argue that as long as Mexico is stable and helps the United States guard its border, its internal political arrangements are not a U.S. concern. That was the view in the United States for many decades, and was the approach taken by the Trump administration—which cared mostly for Mexico’s cooperation on migration issues. It also appears to be the approach of the Biden administration, despite its rhetoric about democracy being at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. As CFR Fellow for Latin America Will Freeman wrote, “Border-first diplomacy, if you could call it that, seems here to stay.”[8]

In February 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted about the killing of Mexican journalists: “The high number of journalists killed in Mexico this year and the ongoing threats they face are concerning. I join those calling for greater accountability and protections for Mexican journalists.”[9]

This was hardly a condemnation, though it did elicit pushback from AMLO, who said, “it’s not true….they’re tricking him.”[10] But it was also Blinken’s only direct comment about Lopez Obrador’s effort to rebuild authoritarian rule. In February 2023, the department’s spokesperson issued this statement about the struggle over Lopez Obrador’s efforts to undermine the INE:

Healthy democracies benefit from strong institutions and a plurality of voices. The United States supports independent, well-resourced electoral institutions that strengthen democratic processes and the rule of law. Around the world, we have witnessed challenges to democracy that have tested and are testing the strength of independent electoral and judicial institutions. Today, in Mexico, we see a great debate on electoral reforms on the independence of electoral and judicial institutions that illustrates Mexico’s vibrant democracy. We respect Mexico’s sovereignty. We believe that a well-resourced, independent electoral system and respect for judicial independence support healthy democracy.[11]

Though Lopez Obrador took offense at this statement, it is hard to imagine a weaker reaction to Lopez Obrador’s actions, or weaker verbal support for the tens of thousands of Mexicans who had demonstrated against them. The statement contained no direct criticism, nor was it made by Blinken himself, or even by the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Just as Mexico is falling back into the political patterns under which it lived before 2000, the United States could be falling back into its old practice of near silence about human rights violations and undemocratic politics there. In January 2023, for example, the State Department released the following account of Secretary Blinken’s conversation with his Mexican counterpart:

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke yesterday with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard to follow up on the North American Leaders’ Summit. They discussed our ongoing cooperation to combat the production and trafficking of illicit synthetic drugs, including fentanyl, the leading cause of death for individuals aged eighteen to forty-nine in the United States. The Secretary committed to strengthening the U.S.-Mexico partnership to protect our people, prevent transborder crime, and pursue criminal networks through the U.S.-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health, and Safe Communities.[12]

Not a word about democracy, human rights, or free elections.

The United States and Democracy in Mexico

For decades the United States was nearly silent about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Mexico. Mexico’s turn to democracy in the 2000 presidential election—and the progress that election both embodied and propelled—were all achieved without U.S. pressure. The United States certainly encouraged economic reform, and in 1982 and 1995 helped bail out Mexico in moments of financial crisis. Those bailouts did include demands for financial reforms—but never for political change.

Why was silence on human rights and democracy acceptable then, but not now?

First, both Mexico and U.S. foreign policy have changed. Mexico has both a much more complex and open economy that is more integrated with world markets and with the U.S. economy than it was in the Reagan years. The disappearance or weakness of the rule of law in Mexico, including an erosion of property and contract rights and loss of control of whole regions of the country to criminal groups, will be detrimental to the United States in ways it wouldn’t have been in the 1980s. And human rights, both in rhetoric and often in substance as well, has gained a greater role in U.S. foreign policy. This is visible in events such as President Biden’s two democracy summits, and in the recurrent use of sanctions against repressive regimes—including Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in the Western Hemisphere.

Second, in the 1980s Mexico claimed to be a democracy and undemocratic moves by its PRI presidents were hidden and denied. Under AMLO, the actions being taken against institutions such as the INE, the judiciary, autonomous agencies (including those established for environmental protection), and the press, as well as his unlawful use of the presidency to promote his own political party, are all public, visible, and brazen. It is one thing to be silent about less visible abuses, and quite another to ignore shameless violations of tradition, law, and human rights.

Third, the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels in Mexico has expanded immensely. As we have seen in Colombia and El Salvador, and indeed in Mexico, any government efforts to retake control are likely to be both extremely difficult and quite violent. For those efforts to have full U.S. support, they will need to be conducted by a democratic government (however imperfect it may be) acting under law. El Salvador today is a warning: President Nayib Bukele’s anti-gang program has lowered the level of violence and gained him great popularity in El Salvador (and elsewhere in the region), but relations between his government and the United States are difficult and his actions do not have U.S. support. Actions against criminals in Mexico that violate Mexican and international law, and undermine Mexican democracy, will further exacerbate bilateral relations and make all forms of cooperation far more difficult.

Fourth, the loss of a democratic system is more threatening to democracy and democrats around the globe than the failure to achieve one yet. In that sense, the backsliding in Tunisia, to take one example, is a greater challenge to democracy and human rights than the continuing repression in its neighbor Algeria. The return to Sandinista tyranny is a worse result for Nicaragua and the cause of human rights now, after Nicaragua achieved and lived under democracy from 1990 to 2007, than Haiti’s failure to achieve democratic rule. 

The Reagan policy, aiming at economic progress in Mexico in the 1980s as a basis for further social and political progress, may have been adequate for that decade. Reagan’s idea of a free trade area was finally achieved a decade later and could well have been a major part of the broader changes in Mexico that led to political change in 2000 and in the years since. But today the clock is being turned back by a Mexican president who does not value or accept the limits on his personal power that democratization imposed, and is willing to tear apart the institutional and legal structures that protect freedom of speech and press, free elections, and the rule of law in Mexico.


A return to the old U.S. pattern of silence about these critical issues would be a great mistake, because it is no coincidence that Mexico’s economy, the rule of law, and democratic institutions—which grew simultaneously for years—are in trouble all at once. A strong, democratically elected government will be far better able to assert control over all parts of Mexico than a dictatorship that has very difficult (and sometimes hostile) relations with the United States and much of the international community. It will have broader public support to take the needed measures against criminal cartels. It will also be better able to maintain tourism and foreign direct investment, which will eventually (and perhaps quite soon) be affected by rising levels of crime.

A freely elected Mexican government that respects human rights should not be viewed as a luxury that the United States cannot afford to support. On the contrary, a Mexico that falls back into authoritarian politics, corruption, and lawlessness will not be the partner the United States needs to protect its many critical interests with this strategically important neighbor.


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