The president was angry.
The U.S. Department of State had just published its annual report on human rights violations around the world, and Mexico had not done well. The report included grave accusations of murders, femicides, torture, corruption and impunity. “It's trash,” an angry Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said of the report. “They are liars” and “they don't have proof.” Childishly, he labeled the State Department, in charge of foreign policy for the wealthiest superpower on the planet, “that little department.”
The problem is that what the report says is true, it does have proof and López Obrador is trying to deny reality. Perhaps his daily news conferences can set the news agenda in Mexico. But he cannot do that in the United States or the rest of the world.
Mexico, it must be said, is an extremely dangerous place. And none of AMLO's denials can change the facts. The report says Mexico suffers from “forced disappearance by government agents; torture … arbitrary arrest or detention; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence against journalists … insufficient investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence … Impunity and extremely low rates of prosecution,” among many other categories of human rights violations.
The State Department report is not invented. It fulfills its obligation to inform Congress every year on what is happening in countries that receive U.S. assistance or are members of the United Nations. Among its contributors are ambassadors, foreign policy experts, non-government organizations, academics, journalists and experts on human rights. Those are the people López Obrador called “liars.” He added later, “It's petty politics, with all due respect.” It's not, with all due respect.
In fact, the State Department report coincides in many areas with the official data from López Obrador's own government. In 2022 there were 30,966 murders in Mexico, 973 femicides and 723 kidnappings. That is exactly what the State Department reported.
And it's not surprising that the central theme of the report is the presence and growing influence of the drug cartels in Mexico. “Criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking,” the report stated, “but the majority remained uninvestigated and unprosecuted.”
During testimony before the US Senate, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was asked if he believed drug cartels and not the government control parts of Mexico. “I think it's fair to say yes,” Blinken replied. And it's the same thing any Mexican can say in Tamaulipas, Michoacán or Sinaloa. AMLO has lost control of large sectors of Mexican territory with his policy of “abrazos, no balazos” – hugs, not bullets, a policy recently mangled, perhaps intentionally, as “kisses, not hugs” by US Sen. Bob Menendez.
López Obrador says, correctly, that the Mexican government is not longer the principal abuser of human rights. But his militarization of the country has led to many abuses. Just last month, five unarmed youths were killed when soldiers “activated their weapons” against their truck, according to the official report. With 20 shots fired, it's difficult to believe that was a mistake.
No matter what, the army's place is in its barracks. And in the future it will be very difficult to take away the power López Obrador has given it – despite the absence of positive results in the fight against drug violence and to recover territories under the control of drug cartels.
Every morning, Monday through Friday, López Obrador shows Mexicans the country he imagines – a narrative told from a position of power. But it is not the country where more than 130 million people live. He remains a popular president, unlike the corrupt previous governments by the PAN and PRI parties. And he has the legitimacy of having won more than 30 million votes in the most recent election. But he is not a magician. His words cannot change reality. What's worse, by refusing to acknowledge what is wrong and accept his responsibility for mistakes, it's impossible to find real solutions.
In the end, what the Department of State says about the violence, impunity and human rights violations in Mexico is exactly what Mexicans are facing every day of their lives. The murders, the femicides, the kidnappings and the murdered journalists cannot be covered up with a couple of insults during a news conference. Those are empty words.