Source Responsible Statecraft

WASHINGTON, US: Millions of Mexican voters will head to the polls this Sunday for what is likely to be a historic national election. With over 20,000 congressional and local positions up for grabs, it’s the largest election in the country's recent history.
The most closely watched race will be for the presidency, as the nation prepares to choose a successor to outgoing populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Claudia Sheinbaum is the frontrunner — the former mayor of Mexico City, she leads her opposition in the polls by 20%. A member of the ruling leftist Morena party, Sheinbaum is expected to continue many of her predecessor's policies. But as Mexico faces a persistent security crisis, the future hinges on how the next president will distinguish her approach from that of López Obrador. Analysts say that better cooperation with the U.S. will be critical, and that both countries need to refocus on structural reforms, rather than simply increasing militarization.
Sheinbaum’s win would be historic for Mexico, as it would make her the country’s first ever female president. But whether she will be a break from the status quo remains unclear, as López Obrador’s party and legacy loom large, says Aileen Teague, a professor at Texas A&M University and non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“She's enjoying Morena’s popularity and she is reluctant to break from López Obrador’s support and his shadow,” Teague said.
This election ultimately represents a choice between continuity of the current government, or a return to a past government that many Mexicans remember as corrupt and ineffective, says Stephanie Brewer of the Washington Office on Latin America.
Sheinbaum’s primary opposition is Xóchitil Gálvez, who is representing a coalition of parties that includes the Institutional Revolutionary Party which had ruled for decades before López Obrador and Morena during an era marked by inequality, corruption and violence. It was under these conditions that López Obrador emerged and gained immense popularity, promising to advocate for the working class and promoting social and developmental programs aimed at reducing poverty.
“What many families tangibly perceive is that to vote for the continuation of Morena is a vote to secure the continuation of these types of programs which they may be directly receiving,” Brewer said.
Sheinbaum promises to continue López Obrador’s policies, including expanding social programs and infrastructure projects and favoring state-owned energy production. She has also stated her support for a package of constitutional reforms López Obrador initiated in February, which analysts criticize for eroding checks and balances. The reforms would further militarize the National Guard, authorizing it to police, and redesign and even eliminate institutions, such as the autonomous Federal Judiciary Council and the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Protection of Personal Data.
But there may be areas where Sheinbaum will differentiate herself from her predecessor, particularly in her approach to cooperation with foreign states.
Part of López Obrador’s identity as a president was his commitment to focusing on Mexico’s domestic issues, Brewer said. “It's almost purposefully showing that he is not at all concerned about deepening cooperation with foreign governments.”
Sheinbaum has hinted at being more willing to engage on the global stage, as she has emphasized that Mexico should play a more active role in multilateral treaties to address the climate emergency, for example.
This openness to cooperation will be an important difference when it comes to Mexico-U.S. relations, particularly in addressing security concerns that affect both countries.
Drug cartels have sown deep insecurity in and outside of Mexico — there have been 360,000 homicides and thousands of disappearances since 2006, when former president Felipe Calderon ordered a military crackdown on the cartels. Compounding this crisis, Mexican drug cartels are the primary producers of fentanyl-laced opioids that flood into the U.S. and fuel the majority of deadly opioid overdoses that occur in the U.S. each year.
The U.S. and Mexico have agreed to cooperate to address these challenges through bilateral agreements such as the 2008 Mérida Initiative, which has been criticized for its emphasis on militarization and limited success in reducing violence and crime. But relations deteriorated during López Obrador’s term. He narrowed channels of cooperation and communication with U.S. officials and law enforcement after a former Mexican defense minister was arrested in Los Angeles in 2020. Tensions grew after Mexican authorities disbanded a DEA-trained anti-narcotics force that had worked with U.S. law enforcement for decades.
Though mutual distrust imbues the current relationship, Teague says, that could change if Mexico’s next president is more inclined to engage with foreign leaders. “There could be an opportunity for some renewed cooperation in the way that we haven't seen in the last two years,” she said.
Sheinbaum may do so, as she says her security policy will focus on improving collaboration and information sharing between police and security forces, which includes a more fluid partnership with the U.S.
But agreeing to cooperate more closely won’t be enough, Brewer says. “If that cooperation isn't directed at the right policies, it's not going to bring advances,” she said. A more fruitful relationship will target the structures and systems that facilitate cartel activity and security issues.
The crux of the issue, according to Brewer, is the pervasive impunity in Mexico. Cartels thrive by colluding with state officials, while only a fraction of crimes are reported, investigated, and punished.
“You can't militarily deploy your way out of that problem,” Brewer said, and yet this is where resources and investment have been directed, as opposed to reforming the justice system and targeting corruption.
It will also be critical for the U.S. to reconsider how it applies pressure to the Mexican government to respond to security threats, as Washington makes specific demands that make it difficult to take a holistic, productive approach to security issues, Brewer adds.
The migration crisis serves as an example — Mexico's current policy stems from U.S. pressure to intercept migrants before they reach the border, resulting in measures that restrict migrant movement, such as imposing new visa requirements and increasing detentions and deportations.
“Those are all not only harmful to the migrant and asylum seeking population, they're extremely counterproductive,” Brewer says, as these policies do nothing to address what drives people to migrate.
Beyond reshaping policy objectives, Teague says Washington needs to demonstrate that it is interested in improving bilateral relations with Mexico. “Not just interested in them whenever it's politically useful, or whatever a crisis comes up, but actually interested in establishing productive relations in the longer term,” she said.
How the bilateral relationship will evolve will be highly dependent on the outcome of not just Mexico’s election, but the U.S.’s in November. What's evident is that both nations must embrace a new paradigm for their relationship.