An Uncertain Future: Democratic Backsliding through Executive Aggrandizement under AMLO

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While the most dramatic types of democratic backsliding, such as coups d’etat, have been on the decline in Latin America, democratic backsliding, in a more insidious way, has taken its place in the form of executive aggrandizement. Executive aggrandizement, according to scholar Nancy Bermeo, is when the executive branch weakens checks and balances by enacting institutional changes that hamper the ability of the opposition to challenge executive preferences. Heads of state who partake in executive aggrandizement are typically electorally popular and therefore justify these changes as carrying out the people’s mandate. Such aggrandizement aims to secure one’s political position and enable the implementation of a political agenda with minimal pushback.

Case studies of executive aggrandizement in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) include Ecuador’s Rafael Correa from 2007 to 2017, but more recently Mexico has many wondering whether the United States’ neighbor to the south will be effective in insulating its democratic institutions from this trend. The research in this report relies on Bermeo’s definition of executive aggrandizement and creates 16 indicators based on actions that the executive can take to suppress legislative and judicial bodies while simultaneously targeting other institutional sources of accountability, such as a free and independent press, civil society groups, and civilian oversight over defense and security bodies. Of the 16 indicators the authors lay out, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (colloquially known as AMLO) has exhibited 14.

The Case of Mexico

Mexico has had a tumultuous and complicated history in terms of the abuse of power. The 1917 constitution, crafted to benefit the political elite at the time, provided presidents with “meta-constitutional” and “anti-constitutional” privileges granting them the ability to select and remove elected politicians from office, maintain tight control over financial resources, and directly intervene in the administrative and financial affairs of local and state governments. This led to the exertion of unitary party control by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which heavily concentrated power in the executive branch. To correct this abuse of power, reforms in the 1980s decentralized power by expanding Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies and implementing proportional representation. Additionally, the reforms mandated the creation of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE)—the precursor to the National Electoral Institute (INE) created in 2014—which was in charge of overseeing and regulating the electoral process. These changes ensured competition in congressional seats and empowered the supreme court to challenge unconstitutional abuses of power. The reforms are credited with Mexico’s multiparty democracy and the historic win of the National Action Party (PAN) in the 2000 general election, followed by a second victory in 2006 and the unprecedented victory of AMLO, the first presidential candidate of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), in 2018.

AMLO’s Historic Presidency

Throughout his 2018 campaign, then candidate AMLO promised to bring Mexico into its “Fourth Transformation,” aimed at ending corruption, growing the economy, reducing violence, building infrastructure, and expanding social programs designed to reduce poverty and inequality. This follows three historic transformations: Mexico’s War of Independence, the Reform War, and the Mexican Revolution. AMLO’s historic election stood out as the most recent demonstration of the people’s discontent with the status quo of the economy and high levels of corruption, as he became the latest leftist leader in Latin America to be elected on a platform of social reforms seeking to eradicate poverty and inequality, similar to Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and later Colombia’s Gustavo Petro.

Close to the end of his six-year term, an assessment of AMLO’s policies—measuring their impacts not only on the political, economic, and security situations in Mexico but also on its democratic institutions—suggests that Mexico “appears far more battered and bruised than the Mexico AMLO took the reins of in 2018.” AMLO politicized the office of the attorney general, attempted to curtail the INE’s budget, and has continued to militarize Mexico’s security forces, following in the steps of his predecessors. AMLO sees himself, not Mexico’s congress, as the direct and sole manifestation of the will of the people, and his disregard for checks and balances is troubling. The following sections seek to quantify AMLO’s efforts to centralize power and assess the impacts of these efforts on Mexico’s democracy.

Evaluating AMLO’s Administration and Democratic Backsliding in Mexico

Using Bermeo’s work as a guide, the authors have examined four dimensions of democratic backsliding to assess the situation in Mexico: (1) executive influence over the electoral system, (2) executive influence over the judicial branch, (3) executive encroachment on national and civilian security, and (4) executive undermining of established political liberties. Each dimension contains four indicators that illustrate the different ways in which the executive branch can influence other branches, alter institutions, and centralize power. All dimensions and indicators are highlighted in Table 1, where a checkmark () indicates that AMLO has exhibited this behavior and an x (X) means he has not.

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Executive Influence over the Electoral System

AMLO has consistently voiced his opposition to the INE, an entity which he blames for losing the 2006 and 2012 presidential elections, and he has sought, through budgetary reforms, to significantly reduce the INE’s presence throughout the country. The president has also violated electoral laws by using his platform to campaign for other party members. Of the four indicators in this dimension, AMLO exhibited executive aggrandizement in three: manipulating budget allocations for the electoral system, restricting voter access, and hampering electoral procedures. AMLO has not attempted to place political appointees in positions responsible for electoral oversight, making it the only indicator in this dimension for which there is no evidence of democratic backsliding.

Budget Manipulation Related to Electoral Oversight

AMLO has weakened the electoral system by reducing the INE’s budget by 3.5 billion pesos ($209.6 million). This has affected not only the INE’s staff but also its ability to set up, monitor, protect, and regulate federal, state, and local elections. AMLO declined to provide additional funding to the INE during the 2021 Mexican midterm elections, which significantly delayed results; he has spoken about removing the institute altogether; and he has called for the INE’s director, Lorenzo Córdova, to resign.

Restriction of Voter Access

In 2021, a national referendum asking Mexicans whether to investigate former presidents for corruption had a 7 percent voter turnout. Some observers credit such low voter turnout to a reduction in polling stations, which went from the 104,667 originally planned to 56,465, due to budgetary constraints. The referendum, pushed in part by AMLO himself, was estimated to cost around 500 million pesos (around $29 million), equivalent to a third of the INE’s budget that year. Similarly, a referendum seeking to put AMLO’s recall on the ballot in 2022 cost the INE 1.5 billion pesos (around $89 million) and yielded a mere 17 percent voter turnout, potentially due to a reduced number of polling stations. NGOs and domestic organizations criticized both referenda as political exercises by AMLO to increase his popularity.

Hampering of Electoral Procedures

AMLO has also frequently used the presidential platform and podium to publicly and openly campaign for fellow Morena party members while also verbally attacking candidates from other political parties, which is in direct contradiction to the principles stated in the Mexican constitution. Overall, AMLO has not been supportive of the country’s electoral infrastructure, and he has failed to provide additional security and support for poll workers amid Covid-19 and the high rates of violence in many states.

Executive Influence over the Judicial Branch

Despite his campaign promises of accountability and transparency, AMLO has hampered the judicial system for his political benefit and weakened Mexico’s checks and balances in the process. Throughout his term, AMLO has politicized and weaponized the federal judicial system with politically driven investigations and prosecutions. He has made politicized appointments to the supreme court, harassed judges, and threatened political figures with incarceration. AMLO’s actions to advance his personal and political interests have weakened the rule of law and tainted the judicial system with allegations of impunity and widespread corruption. In this dimension, AMLO has exhibited executive aggrandizement in all four indicators.

Appointment of Ideologically Aligned or Loyal Judges

AMLO has appointed 4 of the 11 current supreme court justices during his presidency: Loretta Ortiz Ahlf, Juan Luis González Alcántara Carrancá, Yasmín Esquivel Mossa, and Ana Margarita Ríos Farjat. Ortiz Ahlf, before becoming a minister of the supreme court, was a congresswoman for the Labour Party (PT), Morena’s ally in the Mexican legislature. Although she was appointed by López Obrador, Ortiz Ahlf did recuse herself from the hearing on Mexico’s Electricity Industry Law and was prevented from sitting in the corruption case against AMLO’s brother due to concerns over conflicts of interest. In contrast, Esquivel Mossa, a supreme court justice since 2019, granted AMLO’s attorney general a suspension through which she prevented the delivery of the investigation file on his brother to the electoral authorities due to concerns related to human rights violations of his data (AMLO himself would later infringe on these same laws by doxing a New York Times journalist, and when questioned, he argued the law doesn’t apply to the president).

Use of Executive Decrees to Restrict Judicial Oversight of the Presidency

Of Mexico’s most recent presidents, AMLO has used executive decrees on the widest range of topics. AMLO has recently proposed constitutional reforms that, if passed, would give the executive branch control of the wages, evaluations, and promotion tracks of all judges—even those in the supreme court. The Mexican Bar Association, the Stanford Law School Rule of Law Impact Lab, and the Inter-American Dialogue’s Rule of Law Program strongly condemned the proposed reforms as a threat to judicial independence in a report released this year.

Blockage of Investigations

On the campaign trail, AMLO promised to bring to justice public officials who have relations with drug cartels. However, during his administration, he refused to open an investigation into the former secretary of national defense under Enrique Peña Nieto, Salvador Cienfuegos, who is known to have received bribes from the H-2 Cartel. Additionally, AMLO, who was initially eager to investigate the truth of the Iguala mass kidnapping in 2014, has instead allowed multiple investigations under the “truth commission” he created to stall. AMLO has therefore shielded key military officers from being held accountable and has been criticized by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts for hampering domestic and international efforts to uncover connections between government officials, cartels, and the military.

Harassment or Removal of Judges

The United States and the international community have harshly criticized AMLO for using the attorney general’s office to harass and prosecute political opponents. For example, the López Obrador administration’s Financial Intelligence Unit allegedly harassed former supreme court justice Eduardo Medina Mora, leading to his subsequent resignation. After Mora’s resignation, AMLO filled the vacancy with his desired appointee, Margarita Ríos Farjat.

Executive Encroachment on National and Civilian Security

AMLO has rhetorically adopted a policy of nonviolence toward Mexico’s diversified criminal groups, a policy he dubbed abrazos no balazos (“hugs not bullets”). In actuality, however, he has continued to militarize the security forces and has vested them with expanded powers. A 2021 report by the Center for Investigations and Economics (CIDE) found that between 2006 and 2021 more than 245 governmental functions had been transferred from civilian authorities to the Mexican armed forces. Furthermore, the creation of the national guard, accompanied by a refusal to transfer the body to civilian control, heralds what experts have called “new militarism,” that is, the normalization of expanded roles of the military and of the handover of civil matters to the military. Lastly, while a 2023 investigation revealed that Mexico was the first country to use Pegasus spyware during the Peña Nieto administration, there is little evidence to suggest that AMLO has significantly expanded the surveillance capabilities of the state. Based on this assessment, AMLO has exhibited executive aggrandizement in three out of four indicators in this dimension.

Transfer of Resources to the Military

While an increase in the national security budgets is a common policy decision, especially amid security crises, the López Obrador administration has transferred functions that typically fall under the purview of other government departments to the military and, in particular, to the newly minted national guard. According to reports, AMLO has transferred 15 state companies, and arguably their proceeds, to military management, including Mexico City’s two airports, a new airline, and the new Tren Maya. Throughout his presidency, López Obrador has approved the expansion of the military’s budget by 150 percent, primarily to absorb the costs of such projects.

Expansion of Institutional Impunity

AMLO has sought to expand the role of the military in Mexico without providing safeguards to prevent the abuse of power. In 2020, Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero, with the president’s backing, proposed a judicial reform plan that would allow suspects to be detained without charges for up to 40 days and would decrease the number of judges needed to monitor defendants’ rights. While AMLO later withdrew his support for the plan, his administration has failed to implement crucial accountability mechanisms under the Organic Law of the Attorney General of the Republic. Manero has allowed the expedited appointment of legal officials and experts without the approval of congress and civilian committees.

Militarization of Civilian Security Forces

Even though AMLO initially claimed he would not use the military under his administration, he has deployed the military to drug-related operations and civilian security tasks since 2019, including for supporting the construction of certain projects, securing ports of entry, building banks to disperse social programs to the elderly and the poor, stopping illegal immigrants, policing large public areas, guiding traffic, and dispersing demonstrations. Furthermore, AMLO has resisted calls to hand over control of the national guard to a civilian. It is currently under the jurisdiction of the Secretariat of Security and Civil Protection despite earlier attempts to transfer it to the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA).

The national guard has been widely condemned for its use of tear gas on innocent protesters and asylum seekers from Guatemala. To make matters worse, between January 1 and August 17, 2022, the National Human Rights Commission (CDNH) registered around 32 complaints of torture and 94 complaints of arbitrary detention, 43 of which were against the national guard. Moreover, over the same time period, the CDNH received an additional 120 complaints of inhumane treatment that were committed by the national guard and other related government entities, including the Secretariat of Security, the attorney general’s office, SEDENA, and the National Migration Institute. In 2020, the CDNH also received complaints about forced disappearances, inhumane treatment, and arbitrary detention. In April 2020, photos circulated on social media of members of the national guard eating with cartel members, and a video surfaced in early May that year of the national guard extorting citizens in Sonora, further augmenting concerns about the force’s abuses.

Executive Undermining of Established Political Liberties

AMLO not only has failed to protect journalists but also has attacked the press and independent organizations and defunded independent agencies that seek to protect civil liberties. AMLO has also sponsored and promoted laws that harshly repress demonstrations and has routinely used the national guard to repress civilian protests. Overall, AMLO has contradicted himself in declaring himself a champion of the people while simultaneously being punitive toward citizens and civil society. In this dimension, AMLO has exhibited executive aggrandizement in all four indicators.

Attacks on the Media

AMLO’s presidency has been characterized by the establishment of a daily press briefing, also known as the “Mañanera,” an hours-long daily briefing that the president has instituted in the name of transparency. However, AMLO most often uses this platform to respond to negative coverage of his administration, oftentimes by attacking or doxing journalists who publish negative stories about him. During his six-year term, he disclosed the income of journalist Carlos Loret de Mola and the phone number of New York Times reporter Natalie Kitroeff, and has referred to journalists as “thugs,” putting journalists in acute danger. Mexico has been one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, including active warzones, with around 37 journalists killed during AMLO’s term alone. With little political appetite for extended protections, journalists continue to suffer not only verbal attacks by the president but also physical violence with no end in sight.

Encroachment on Civilian Privacy through Surveillance

According to a report by the New York Times, Mexico was the first country to deploy Pegasus, during the Calderón administration. While AMLO has also openly criticized the use of spyware by the Calderón administration, there is no evidence that he is has stopped its use. In fact, during his six-year term, the armed forces deployed the software on human rights defender, Raymundo Ramos, accusing him of seeking to “discredit the armed forces.” Raymundo was in fact, investigating an unlawful killing by the military that took place in Nuevo Laredo when his phone was infected. Two other cases, both undertaken by the armed forces, are salient during AMLO’s presidency: the surveillance of Alejandro Encinas, Mexico’s undersecretary for human rights, and constant monitoring of over 15 feminist groups.

Interference with Political Actors and Others in Opposition

In the run-up to the Mexican presidential election, AMLO has continuously attacked candidate Xóchitl Gálvez, thus breaking with long-standing tradition of Mexican presidents not commenting on candidates in the presidential race. AMLO has also used his attorney general’s office to threaten to incarcerate more than two dozen professors and scientists for alleged money laundering and organized crime charges, which were quickly shot down in court due to a lack of evidence. AMLO has also used lower federal courts and tax authorities as well as financial crime units to harass political opponents.

Repression of Protests and Demonstrations

AMLO, ironically, became popular for protesting Pemex operations in the early years of his political career. Now, AMLO is supportive of punitive laws that increase pretrial detention and tougher penalties for those who are arrested during protests and demonstrations. In July 2019, AMLO and Morena Party members proposed legislation that would permit prison sentences of up to 20 years for obstructing access to business and 13 years for blocking progress on public works projects. AMLO has also used the national guard to disperse crowds and protests, an institution that in its young tenure has already faced complaints of excessive use of force, abuse, and even torture.

An Uncertain Future for Mexico

On February 5, 2024, Mexico’s Constitution Day, AMLO proposed 20 new political changes, 18 of which require changes to the constitution, with the remaining two seen as legal reforms. Key changes include a reduction in the number of seats in Mexico’s national legislature, and a reform to elect judges by popular vote. While the proposed reforms are currently being reviewed in the lower house of congress, it is important to note that AMLO’s party, Morena, does not have the necessary two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass them. Many fear that, should Morena win a supermajority in both houses and the presidency, AMLO’s legacy of executive aggrandizement and democratic backsliding will continue even after he leaves office. Considering Latin America’s history of democratic backsliding through executive aggrandizement, the question of how countries can best safeguard institutions and maintain checks and balances is one Mexico must grapple with should it wish to continue to be considered a robust democracy in the hemisphere.

Ryan C. Berg is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Leonardo Moraveg is a fellow with the American Political Science Association’s Diversity Fellowship Program.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.

Leonardo Moraveg

Fellow, Diversity Fellowship Program, American Political Science Association