This post is published in conjunction with the Law and Society Association annual conference in Toronto, June 7-10. #LSACA18 #LSA2018

By Keith Guzik, author of Making Things Stick: Surveillance Technologies and Mexico’s War on Crime

The likely election of populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) in Mexico on July 1 has cast in sharp relief major fault lines in Mexican society. López Obrador, has rallied support for his campaign by distancing himself from the country’s traditional political parties (he began his own political movement, MORENA, in 2012) and promising to tackle government corruption and insecurity, issues that defined and ultimately doomed the prior two administrations. Fearing AMLO’s populist rhetoric, major business tycoons have publicly denounced his campaign and pressured their employees to cast their votes to anyone but the former mayor of Mexico City. López Obrador, in response, has met with business leaders to explain that “we are not against the business sector, we are against corrupt politicians”. To root out corruption, he has promised to redirect discretionary spending into public works, slash the salaries of high-ranking officials, and centralize and monitor government purchases. In brief, López Obrador, like his notorious neighbor to the North, has promised to rejuvenate society by draining the swamp of national politics.

This Isn’t the First Time

The task of remaking the state promises to be a challenging one, whoever is elected president. In Making Things Stick, I tracked the efforts of President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012) to tackle insecurity through innovative technological programs that targeted reforms in basic government functions. A national mobile telephone registry was launched to aid authorities responding to kidnappings and extortion calls; a national identity card featuring biometric data was adopted to protect people from identity theft and fraud; and a national electronic automobile registry was unveiled in order to combat car thefts, kidnappings, and drug trafficking. This state surveillance was very much directed at the state itself. In a country where law enforcement officers and agencies are often corrupt and the information they generate on people and things are often inaccurate, these programs were intended to route administrative data through devices and into centralized databases controlled by the executive branch.

The federal government’s plans for securitizing society through advanced surveillance and information technologies struggled to materialize as ordinary citizens refused to comply with measures they saw as invasive, companies balked at the financial costs associated with the programs, and the technical designs of the programs proved inadequate. The state was also a major obstacle. The federal telecommunications agency in charge of verifying mobile phone users claimed that it did not have the capacity to carry out the work and that mobile providers should finish the work. The federal elections commission mounted a vigorous press campaign against the new identity card, which it feared would be confused with the country’s voter card. And various agencies at the state and federal level held out on implementing the car registry in hopes of extracting concessions from the president’s office.

Returning to Mexico’s upcoming presidential elections, the skirmish between López Obrador and the business sector highlights a key fissure in Mexican society that would dog his administration if he were elected. But the challenges facing AMLO’s political ambitions also include institutional cultures, constitutional frameworks, and regional power rivalries that date back to Mexico’s founding. This is not to say that the swamp of Mexican politics should not be drained. It is however worth remembering that Mexico City was built upon the drained lakes of Tenochtitlán, the former Mexica capital, and it sinks some two inches a year as a consequence. As Mexico continues to contend with the consequences of that fateful encounter, care is needed to identify the firmer ground within the state upon which a more promising future can be constructed.