Mexico Can’t Solve Its Three Biggest Crises Alone

This article was written by Shannon K. O’Neil and was published by the Council on Foreign Relations on July 10, 2019. It is reproduced here under CC BY-NC 4.0.

A flood of people, a rise in murders, a dearth of energy. Three big crises face Mexico today. How it resolves these challenges will reverberate far beyond its borders. The U.S., which has played a part in creating some of these problems, should be part of their solution.

Migration is the crisis with the highest profile. Hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have passed through Mexico in the last five years, joined by Cubans, Haitians, Indians, Africans from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo and others in a trek to the southern U.S. border. The previous administration of Enrique Pena Nieto deported 600,000 of these sojourners. Yet still more come. And not all continue, with Mexico absorbing tens of thousands who stop and stay.

The promise of a better life in the U.S., family ties, and asylum rules draw Central Americans and others to the U.S.-Mexico border. But President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accelerated the exodus with his initial migration plans. His offer of humanitarian visas triggered a 12,000-person stampede, forcing him to rescind the invitation. He cut the budgets of the two main Mexican migration agencies, leaving bureaucrats who were already overwhelmed even less able to meet the growing influx.

He then appeased President Donald Trump’s hardball demands. To stave off tariffs that Trump threatened to impose unless Lopez Obrador cracked down on transiting migrants, he dispatched 6,000 National Guard and military personnel to set up roadblocks, raid hotels and man the border. He also agreed to keep tens if not hundreds of thousands of migrants in Mexico as the U.S. slowly processes their asylum claims.

Migrants already overwhelm local shelters, churches and parks in Tijuana. Close to 500 migrants are being returned each day to Ciudad Juarez, a city with just 1,500 shelter beds, and in the not too distant past rated the world’s most dangerous. As the U.S. expands its Migrant Protection Protocols, a policy described by the shorthand “Remain in Mexico,” to other border cities, none are prepared to house, clothe, feed, educate or care for those to come.

Mexico’s federal government isn’t stepping in to relieve these local burdens. Instead, Lopez Obrador’s decision to end public funding for nongovernmental organizations leaves migrant shelters, soup kitchens, and human rights defenders even more on their own.

Violence, too, buffets Mexico. Last year was the deadliest on record. Under Lopez Obrador, homicides continue to climb. Crime is spreading from cartel strongholds of Sinaloa, Tamaulipas and Michoacan to the manufacturing heartlands of Guanajuato and Jalisco, and to the capital city.

U.S. drug demand fuels a part of it and U.S. guns make it all the more deadly. But it is Mexico’s weak rule of law that enables crime. And here Lopez Obrador’s steps to bring safety and security have been slow at best, and counterproductive at worst.

Scratching the federal police and defunding community policing, Lopez Obrador is doubling down on a new national guard that will take years to stand up. He is pulling military and security forces away from the fight against crime to go after immigrant women and children. Without effective local and national forces focused on security, Mexico won’t become safer.

Worse, his efforts at justice reform are tearing down incipient efforts to improve the rule of law. He’s on his way to destroying the National Anti-corruption System, a hard-fought civil society effort to take on rampant graft. His party has floated packing the Supreme Court, ending its independence. He himself has said that “justice” (presumably as he defines it) matters more than enforcing the law. This personalizing and politicizing of the third branch of government amount to impunity, and will continue to enable crime.

Meanwhile, Mexico is having a hard time generating electricity.  Blackouts are silencing the air conditioning in Cancun’s hotels, dimming the lights in Campeche’s hospitals, repeatedly pitching whole swaths of Yucatan and Veracruz into darkness.

The government blames the failures on undergrowth fires, old power plants, and even the public comments of the independent Regulatory Energy Commission. The real reason? Mexico lacks gas.

Natural gas powers more than half of Mexico’s energy use and even more of its electricity. Two-thirds of this comes from abroad. And starting in December, the new government slashed imports.

To be sure, Mexico has suffered gas shortages in the past. A decade ago Monterrey’s factories would periodically slow or even close when electricity grew scarce. Mexico solved this with pipelines, new Texas-Mexico connections boosting gas flows nearly five-fold. Liquefied natural gas imports from the U.S. also rose dramatically.

Lopez Obrador has tasked Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned energy company, with ending the current shortages. Yet its gas production is half what it was a decade ago, and on the decline. Given Pemex’s mix of diminished technical capacity, corruption, ideology and downright stubbornness, this trend is unlikely to change soon.

Pemex has seen thousands of skilled employees leave since December due to firings and salary cuts. Rising debt and aggressive new expenditures, including an $8 billion refinery, leave Pemex no room to boost gas investment. And the government is scaring away outside investors by attacking private contracts—most recently, Canadian pipeline providersaccused of finagling “unfair” terms. Lopez Obrador’s stance against fracking makes this all the worse, effectively shutting off half of Mexico’s gas potential.

The U.S. could help Mexico deal with these challenges. In migration, it could start by being a better neighbor and stop asking Mexico to tackle a joint problem alone. The U.S. could fix its asylum process, and surge judges rather than security forces to the border. And it could give Mexico money to support the influx of people, emulating the billions that Europe has provided to Niger and Turkey to house Syrians.

For security, the U.S. and Mexico already have a vehicle for cooperation: the Merida Initiative. Though both presidents are quick to dismiss the security program, the hundreds of millions a year spent over the last decade have bolstered the rule of law in Mexico. Shared intelligence has brought down crime networks. U.S.-funded programs have trained lawyers, judges and police officers in the rules of Mexico’s new justice system. And new police academies have professionalized local forces and introduced community policing tactics to take on everyday local crimes. 

U.S. supplies are the only immediate and cost-effective way out of Mexico’s current electricity quandary. If Lopez Obrador and his administration were open to the idea, Texas is a source of exceptional and cheap bounty.

Helping Mexico to face these challenges isn’t about beneficence. What happens there matters for U.S. companies that count Mexico as one of their largest export markets. It doubly matters for Texas, as Mexico is its largest trading partner and outside energy buyer. It matters for the border, as a downturn to the south is sure to send more Mexicans alongside Central Americans north. And it matters for security, as criminal organizations span the border and endanger people on both sides.

The U.S. needs Mexico not to falter. Even better would be for Lopez Obrador to succeed. A growing, prosperous and inclusive Mexico also promises huge benefits for its northern neighbor. Perhaps the biggest challenge now is to get both leaders to recognize this reality.

This article was written by Shannon K. O’Neiland was published by the Council on Foreign Relations on July 10, 2019. It is reproduced here under CC BY-NC 4.0.

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