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Weekly Report - 24 June 2021 (WR-21-25)

MEXICO: All clear for referendum on former presidents

The government led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador published a law in the official gazette on 17 June to stage a referendum to gauge popular backing for investigating and prosecuting possible crimes committed by his five predecessors. The referendum will be held on 1 August.

The original question to be put to the public in the referendum was amended by the supreme court (SCJN) so that it does not mention by name the former presidents in question: Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), Vicente Fox (2000-2006), Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). But the presidential spokesman, Jesús Ramírez Cuevas, was adamant that this remained the purpose of the referendum and that “in the event of finding evidence, they will go on trial”.

Upon first mentioning the initiative last year, President López Obrador maintained that he would vote ‘no’ because he does not believe in “vengeance”, but this image of tolerance is belied by his frequent diatribes against his predecessors from the “neoliberal period”, and, pointedly, the terms in which it was couched. It claims, for instance, that during the 30 years of their respective administrations, “neoliberalism left millions of victims” and that there was “uncontrolled growth in violence, public insecurity, massive human rights violations, normalised impunity, and the breakdown of the rule of law in vast areas of the national territory”.

Taking aim at each of the former presidents in turn the referendum initiative maintained that Salinas de Gortari was “imposed by fraud” and that “inequality grew the most” under his administration; that “the policies of privatisation [were taken] to their ultimate consequences” under Zedillo; that Fox was guilty of “unwarranted and illegal intervention” in the 2006 presidential elections, which López Obrador lost to Calderón, who was accused of “handing territory over to criminal gangs”; and that Peña Nieto received “large quantities of money of unknown provenance in his presidential campaign”.

The public consultation has been criticised as an unnecessary expense at a time of straitened economic circumstances amid the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, even though the initial estimate for staging it has been revised down from M$1.5bn (US$75m) to M$890m (US$44.5m). There is also a risk that the referendum could be held amid, and contribute to, a new wave of Covid-19 cases in Mexico. This is believed to have been the case with the mega elections on 6 June, but, unlike these, the referendum is not a constitutional requirement.

  • Referendum

The president of the national electoral institute (INE), Lorenzo Córdova, sought additional funds to stage the referendum but to no avail. Córdova complained that the INE had seen its budget cut by M$870m this year despite having to organise an unprecedented number of elections.

School fiasco

López Obrador warned in a morning press conference last week that there could be an upsurge in infections and urged people to get vaccinated to try and stop the spread of infections and reduce pressure on the health system. He said that the government was aiming to have all adults vaccinated with at least one dose by the end of October.

López Obrador, nonetheless, went on to acknowledge that there had been a drop in supply of vaccines from abroad since the elections. The same cannot be said for the number of infections. No sooner had Mexico City (CDMX) moved into ‘green’ in the country’s epidemiological traffic light system for the first time since the pandemic began, leading to the reopening of schools on 7 June, than it was promptly back in ‘amber’, forcing the Mexican government to announce the closure of schools and the suspension of face-to-face learning on 19 June. The lack of coordination between different authorities was laid bare by the announcement by the CDMX government just hours earlier that it would stay in ‘green’.

Cabinet change

President López Obrador made an unexplained change to his cabinet on 21 June. Roberto Salcedo Aquino replaces Irma Eréndira Sandoval Ballesteros as head of the ministry of public administration (SFP). “The policy of zero corruption and zero impunity will be continued. We will never fail the people,” López Obrador said in a tweet announcing the cabinet change.

In a subsequent YouTube video announcing the appointment of Salcedo and the departure of Sandoval, López Obrador praised her for “fighting for justice and for democracy”, saying that she had played a key role in combating corruption and the application of his government’s ‘Republican austerity’ policy, making public tender processes and procurement contracts more transparent. López Obrador said that he was making the change because the government was now entering “a new stage”, including “an administrative reform” and “deepening the fight against corruption”.

It is not clear why López Obrador decided that Sandoval was not qualified to lead this “new stage”. There is some speculation that she had assumed an overtly political role, causing some friction within the ruling left-wing Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena), or had been overly zealous in rooting out corruption.

Some illicit enrichment allegations have also surfaced in the press related to her previous acquisition of several properties deemed incompatible with her wage as an academic; she was director of the Laboratory for the Documentation and Analysis of Corruption and Transparency at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Unam) in Mexico City. Sandoval vehemently denied these allegations and nothing has been proven.

Salcedo Aquino was serving as deputy minister in the SFP. He graduated in political science and public administration from Unam, pursuing an academic career in this area before moving into government.

Corruption

On 22 June the NGO Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MCCI) said that it had conducted an investigation that revealed that the SFP had significantly overpaid for Covid-19 tests. MCCI said the investigation revealed that the SFP had paid M$11,625 (US$571) for a kit containing 25 tests when comparable kits were available for as little as M$3,100 apiece. The contract was signed on 24 December 2020, and the SFP bought 90 such kits.