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Mexico's Governance at a Crossroads

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The resignation of Carlos Pascual, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, as a result of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks is just one of several recent events that highlight cross-border tension between Mexico and the United States. Mexican sensitivity to U.S. criticism is understandable, especially considering the U.S. as a drug market and firearms source, but trends within Mexico make it difficult to view the situation as merely an issue of divergent perceptions.

In this light, it is significant that Freedom in the World 2011, Freedom House's annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties, downgrades Mexico from the Free, where it had resided for a decade with countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru, to Partly Free. The downgrade puts Mexico with poorer performers such as Ecuador, Colombia and Paraguay. Mexico remains an electoral democracy with a sophisticated economy and few official restrictions on citizen liberties, but the downgrade is a result of the Mexican government's failure to protect its citizens from expanding organized crime.

First and foremost were the killings. Targeted assaults and killings were commonplace and as many as 15,000 drug-related homicides were reported throughout the country in 2010; Ciudad Juarez became perhaps the most dangerous city in the world, with more than 3,000 murders. Extortion, kidnapping and abuses of migrants often shared headlines with drug-related deaths. Moreover, assassinations of journalists, prosecutors, police, and human rights defenders demonstrated a sustained attempt by criminal gangs to undermine the Mexican government's authority and civil society's capacity to impede and report on criminal activity and human rights abuses.

Officials and civilians were increasingly targeted. There were more than a dozen assassinations of mayors and one gubernatorial candidate during 2010, signaling increased boldness in direct attacks on elected officials. Journalists were already on the hit list, but with as many as 10 reporters killed and several more still missing, self-censorship has increased as a means of self-preservation. Human rights defenders were harassed, threatened, and in some cases killed, including in many cases those pushing for increased victims' rights.

Mexico is not the only country in the hemisphere with a high rate of violence and the murder rate as a whole remained lower than many other countries, including Brazil. However, the territorial spread of violence, criminals' evident ability to adapt and aggressively seek new revenue sources, and the authorities' sporadic success -- including areas where the military was deployed in large numbers -- led to continued deterioration in citizens' perceptions of security. In the most affected cities, behavior has changed significantly in recent years, with business practices, nightlife, and child care among the notably altered facets of daily life.

While the Mexican government has clearly demonstrated its intention to combat violence, progress is debatable. A number of institutional shortcomings prevent the authorities from achieving sustained progress against organized crime. The justice system, for example, faces serious challenges in protecting citizen rights. Police, especially at the municipal level, are poorly trained and paid, placing them at high risk of corruption; legislation to reorganize state and local forces has stagnated. Investigative capacity is weak, resulting in accusations of forced confessions and failed prosecutions for lack of evidence or technical errors. Municipal and state prisons are at times porous, resulting in escapes and violence. Comprehensive reforms to improve court procedures are laudable but are only slowly being implemented.

Governmental attitudes to the violence and homicides have vacillated between acceptance and defensiveness. The government has sometimes impulsively blamed victims, as it did following a massacre of teenagers at a party in Ciudad Juarez in January 2010. Likewise, efforts to legislate increased accountability of military forces to civilian authorities -- an imperative considering the National Human Rights Commission received over 1500 complaints related to the military in 2010 -- fall well short of Inter-American system norms.

Mexico's decline to Partly Free results from the combination of criminal ferocity and nascent reform efforts. An important qualifier is that Mexico has been downgraded but is still at the high end of the Partly Free category. This keeps Mexico as close to Brazil, Chile, and Canada on the survey's index as it is to Nicaragua and Venezuela, which score near the bottom of the Partly Free category. With improvements in a few areas, Mexico's return to the Free category is highly plausible.

President Calderon and the Mexican government are aware of areas that need to be addressed: improve the competence of the police, make judicial processes more transparent, and ensure that prisoners remain incarcerated. More broadly, Mexico needs to address the lack of education and unemployment for millions of young Mexicans, as these social ills contribute to escalating violence, corruption and other problems. The Mexican government should also more actively engage Mexico's civil society groups, because they are a key part of any solution that will bring increased freedoms back to Mexico's citizens.

Matthew Brady is a Program Director at Freedom House.