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Mexico’s Presidential Campaign Was More Violent Than Ever: What Does This Mean for the Country’s New President?

Hannah Hains | Latin America Fellow

Claudia Sheinbaum holds an informative assembly in Nogales, Sonora. Image sourced from Claudia Shein via Flickr.

Mexico’s recent and largest-ever presidential elections were overshadowed by the highest rates of political violence seen since the last elections in 2018. 38 candidates were murdered, forcing hundreds to pull out of the race, and several killings were recorded at polling stations on election day. Mexico is no stranger to violence, with over 30,000 homicides every year placing the country ninth globally for the highest murder rate. As of July 2023, the country ranked higher than Ukraine for rates of political violence towards civilians. Mexico’s first female President, Claudia Sheinbaum, will inherit the country at its bloodiest, ravaged by election violence and plagued with ongoing issues of femicides and organised crime. To ensure the safety of Mexicans—and her party’s political future—Sheinbaum must make addressing these issues a priority.

Before the Campaign

Violence in Mexico has been increasing in recent years under the current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, more commonly known by his initials AMLO. AMLO came to power in 2018 with no clear strategy to reduce violence or reform the justice system. His approach was to hand much more responsibility to Mexico’s military. Yet extreme violence persisted around the country, in part due to an “uneasy coexistence” between criminal organisations and the military. Because crime did not fall early in AMLO’s term, more troops were deployed, only exacerbating the issue. The lead up to the election was a particularly violent period as criminal organisations financed political campaigns and used violence to further their interests, killing several candidates and incumbent government members who represented a threat to their activities. A higher number of candidates on the ballot than ever before meant more opportunity for criminal organisations to attempt to sway—or eliminate—candidates and voters. 

Due to Mexico’s constitution prohibiting consecutive presidential terms, AMLO, whose consistent 60 per cent approval rating would have likely seen him reelected, backed the former Mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, as the successor for his left-wing Morena party. Sheinbaum campaigned under the watchful eye of AMLO, her former political mentor. 

Campaigning on AMLO’s Promises 

During the campaign, Sheinbaum largely promised a continuation of AMLO’s policies. While AMLO insisted he would not be meddling in Sheinbaum’s administration, his shadow over her campaign has left many unsure as to what her policies on security and justice are. Her vague security strategy details five key focus areas: addressing the social causes of insecurity; consolidating the National Guard; strengthening capacity to gather intelligence; improving coordination between police and prosecutors; and reforming the justice system. 

Many of the approaches Sheinbaum is proposing to achieve this strategy mirror those adopted by AMLO. To address the social causes of insecurity, for example, she has promised cash hand-outs, free apprenticeships to young people, and other preventative measures to discourage Mexico’s youth from entering criminal organisations. While these measures contributed greatly to AMLO’s popularity, their efficacy is questionable. Further, her plan to continue AMLO’s policy of strengthening the National Guard—which has been accused of torture, killings, and sexual assault towards asylum seekers—will likely only further the militarisation of the state, despite Sheinbaum’s claims that the National Guard are deployed for public security and not for war. 

Ultimately, the key aim of these policies is to reduce the country’s murder rate from 23.3 homicides per 100,000 residents to 19.4 by 2027—on par with Brazil today. At the beginning of his term, AMLO set similar goals, but failed to deliver on them. However, Sheinbaum’s successful term as Mayor, in which Mexico City’s homicide rate decreased by 50 percent—a trend which she attributes to improvements in the police force and increased coordination with prosecutors—suggests that she is more equipped to meet this target. While some dispute these numbers, attributing the decrease in homicides to the rise in the numbers of disappearances and deaths of “undetermined intent” during her term, Sheinbaum argues that the increase in reporting on deaths and disappearances are just a further credit to her justice system reforms. 

Challenges Ahead for Sheinbaum 

When Sheinbaum starts her term in October, she’ll inherit a country riddled with violence and without a clear plan on how to address it. Additionally, as Mexico’s first female president, the expectations on Sheinbaum to tackle Mexico’s persistent femicide issue will be high. Many have raised concerns that while the security policy Sheinbaum adopted as Mayor may have seen some success, the same formula cannot be applied nationwide. What is now clear is that the political violence will not cease now that the election is over: female Mayor Yolanda Sánchez was shot dead just hours after the election, Mayor Acacio Flores was murdered weeks after, and civilians continue to be killed weekly as a result of ongoing violence. 

Six out of ten Mexicans believe that insecurity is the country’s main problem. Social services and economic assistance may have won AMLO a loyal following, but with the election almost overshadowed with violence, cash handouts may not be enough to keep Sheinbaum’s popularity high like her predecessor. As violence increases, Sheinbaum must prioritise security and justice reforms to deliver better outcomes for Mexico and her party’s future.

Hannah Hains is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She recently completed her Bachelor of International Relations from The University of Adelaide and looks forward to undertaking postgraduate study in the future and investigating grassroots movements in Latin America.


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