Mexico City, Mexico – The posters hung throughout the capital this week are unequivocal in their message: “By judging the authorities of the past, those of the present and the future will think twice.”
Beneath those words are images of the last five presidents who ruled Mexico from 1988 to 2018: Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Vicente Fox Quesada, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa and Enrique Pena Nieto.
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Each man has his eyes covered with words referring to a major scandal that took place during his administration. Underneath is a hashtag that reads #JudgementYesImpunityNo.
The posters are part of a campaign to turn out voters on Sunday for a referendum that asks Mexicans whether they agree the country should “undertake a process of shedding light on the political decisions made in past years by political actors, aimed at guaranteeing justice and the rights of potential victims”.
The question is being asked in an official referendum proposed by the country’s current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, who cited corruption, human rights violations, impunity and a breakdown in the rule of law as issues that festered under his predecessors.
“In proposing the referendum, AMLO cited the levels of inequality, corruption, and violence in Mexico over the past three decades,” Stephanie Brewer, the Mexico and migrant rights director at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Al Jazeera.
“These problems have had devastating effects on broad sectors of society, so these topics resonate deeply with much of the public,” she said.
A rather general proposition, the vote has been colloquially referred to as “putting ex-presidents on trial”, and aims to decide whether the five men depicted on the poster should someday be brought to trial for crimes against the Mexican people. AMLO has previously said he isn’t in favour of prosecuting ex-presidents but will leave it to the people to decide.
The vote is being held in accordance with the Mexican constitution, and 40 percent of the population will need to turn out for its results to be considered valid. Even if the majority vote “yes”, statutes of limitations and other legal hurdles could make actually prosecuting former presidents difficult. But campaigners say asking the question matters.
High costs of corruption
There’s little doubt that accountability is warranted for the violence and corruption of the past 30 years in Mexico.
Mexico ranked 124 out of 180 countries on non-profit Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index, and its rating — 31 out of 100 — is below the average for Latin America and has fallen three points since 2012.
In fact, 44 percent of Mexicans said they thought corruption had increased in the last 12 months, and 34 percent of public service users reported paying a bribe during that same period, the organisation’s 2020 Global Corruption Barometer found.
The clandestine nature of corruption makes it hard to calculate, but estimates put the cost at between 2 and 10 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product, according to a 2018 report (PDF) from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Corruption also has extensive social costs, not the least of which is the stymieing of innovation and opportunity.
“The total economic losses from corruption and violence in Mexico are virtually incalculable,” Brewer said.
Just this month, an international investigation published in The Guardian showed that public funds previously earmarked for buying medicine and maintaining firefighting equipment were used to buy Pegasus spyware manufactured in Israel and used by officials in the Pena Nieto administration to surveil journalists uncovering government corruption.
The economic impact of violence
The country has also experienced record-breaking levels of violence in recent years, and impunity has made it harder to prosecute crimes. That has also taken an economic toll: the country’s rising levels of violence cost $238bn in 2019, according to the non-profit Institute for Economics & Peace’s 2020 Mexico Peace Index.
The tenure of former President Pena Nieto (who was succeeded by AMLO), for example, is known as one of the most deadly, with some 35,964 homicides registered during 2018, his last year in office, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).
That figure translates to the highest rate recorded since INEGI began gathering this information in 1990, and represents significantly more homicides than during the administration of Pena Nieto’s predecessor, Calderon, who spearheaded the bloody “war on drugs” that continues to cost lives in the country.
Since AMLO took office, the homicide rate has changed little. Mexico registered 34,515 homicides in 2020 and 34,648 in 2019. In addition to the high homicide rate, government figures show more than 90,000 people remain missing or disappeared.
“Human rights violations in recent decades have spanned a universe of victims, many well-known: forcibly disappeared people and their families, torture survivors, victims of massacres,” Brewer said.
The “vote yes” campaign has referenced some of those incidents to drive voters to the polls.
On the posters urging people to vote in Sunday’s referendum, for example, the face of Pena Nieto bears the word “Ayotzinapa,” a reference to the disappearance of 43 young people in September 2014. The subsequent government investigation and alleged cover-up of that incident have become emblematic of the deep complicity between state officials and armed criminal organisations.
A worthy question
Omar Gonzalez, 33, said he will be voting “yes” this Sunday. A farmer from the state of Guerrero, Gonzalez said he was forcibly displaced from his home along with many of his neighbours in November 2018 when an armed criminal gang invaded their village and took it over.
“Political corruption is the reason I was displaced,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera, referring to the well-known pacts between some politicians and organised criminal groups that enable the kind of violence and insecurity his community was subjected to.
But how many people like Gonzalez will actually show up to vote on Sunday remains to be seen.
Turnout during the recent midterm elections was 52 percent, and in that instance, people were more actively encouraged to vote. It is also unclear whether a decisive “yes” vote would lead directly to opening up judicial investigations against former presidents.
Regardless of the outcome, international lawyer and transitional justice specialist Jorge Peniche told Al Jazeera that the vote could mark a step forward for Mexico, which is crying out for solutions to human rights violations and economic stagnation.
Along with his colleagues at Justicia Transicional MX, a non-profit focused on confronting impunity, Peniche recently brought a challenge to the country’s Supreme Court, which mandated Sunday’s vote, requesting clarification on the scope and subject matter of the referendum question with a view to pushing for a concrete justice initiative if the public votes “yes”.
For Peniche, the deep social and economic problems that Mexico continues to face are too important not to keep pushing for change through institutions like the law.
Along with the many other groups fighting for accountability in Mexico, he said, “We’re trying to fill a vacuum that has not been occupied by the state.”