Since the beginning of the “war” on organized crime in 2006, rates of violent crime have skyrocketed in Mexico, reaching historic highs under the administration of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December 2018. Although authorities often blame this violence on criminal groups, most crimes are not investigated and those responsible are never identified or prosecuted.
Since 2007, successive governments have deployed the military domestically to fight organized crime and conduct law enforcement tasks. Soldiers, police, and prosecutors have committed serious, widespread human rights violations, including torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, with near total impunity. Efforts to reform police and prosecutors’ offices have been ineffective. Congress, controlled by López Obrador’s party, disbanded the Federal Police in 2019. It formally transferred police functions to the Ministry of Defense in 2022.
Thousands of people continue to disappear every year. Over 105,000 were officially considered missing as of September. Most disappeared after 2006.
Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists and human rights defenders.
President López Obrador has collaborated with the US government in anti-immigration policies aimed at preventing migrants from travelling through Mexico to reach the United States.
Violence and Impunity
Levels of violent crime have reached historic highs under President López Obrador. The homicide rate was 28 homicides per 100,000 in 2021.
Around 90 percent of crimes are never reported, a third of reported crimes are never investigated, and just under 16 percent of investigations are “resolved,” (either in court, through mediation, or through some form of compensation), meaning authorities resolved just over 1 percent of all crimes committed in 2021, according to the national statistics agency.
Criminal Justice System
Police, prosecutors, and soldiers commonly use torture to obtain confessions, and engage in other abuses against those accused of crimes. The justice system regularly fails to ensure due process.
Judges are legally required to order pretrial detention for those accused of many offenses, without evaluating the circumstances of the case, violating international human rights standards. Around 85 percent of those sent to prison in 2020 had not been convicted of any crime, according to an analysis of official data by human rights organization Intersecta. Congress, controlled by López Obrador’s party, expanded the list of crimes requiring mandatory pretrial detention in 2019.
Prisons are notoriously unsanitary and overcrowded. Prosecutors continue to use arraigo detention, a mechanism allowing them to obtain judicial authorization to detain anyone for up to 40 days without charge, in violation of international human rights standards.
Torture is widely practiced by police, prosecutors, and soldiers to obtain confessions and extract information. In the most recent survey of incarcerated people conducted by Mexico’s national statistics office in July 2021, nearly half of respondents said that, after they were detained, police or soldiers had subjected them to physical abuse. Among those who had confessed to a crime, 38 percent said they did so only because authorities had beaten or threatened them.
The use of evidence obtained through torture in criminal trials is prohibited. However, many defendants face barriers and delays to proving they were tortured, limiting the effectiveness of the prohibition. A 2017 law required the attorney general to create a registry to track torture complaints. As of September 2022, the registry had yet to be created.
Soldiers and marines have been deployed for law enforcement and to fight organized crime for decades, leading to widespread human rights violations. From 2007 through September 2022, the army killed 5,335 civilians, according to government data. Since 2018, the number of human rights commission complaints against the Army and National Guard has steadily increased. In 2021, the commission received 940 such complaints, the highest number in eight years.
President López Obrador has greatly expanded the budget, autonomy, and responsibilities of the armed forces, deploying them for hundreds of tasks traditionally conducted by civilian authorities, such as law enforcement, customs enforcement, controlling irregular immigration, running social programs, and administering public works projects. The military can legally detain civilians, take charge of crime scenes, and preserve evidence. Charging the military with these tasks has in the past contributed to human rights abuses.
In October, an investigation by human rights groups and journalists reported that the military had purchased the spyware Pegasus in 2019 and used it to illegally spy on human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition party politicians despite promises by President López Obrador that the government no longer spied on civilians.
Abuses by members of the military against civilians are supposed to be prosecuted in civilian, not military, courts, but those responsible are rarely brought to justice. In 2022, Congress passed a reform to ensure that soldiers assigned to carry out civilian policing activities are subject to the Military Code of Justice rather than to civilian law.
Emails obtained by journalists as part of “Guacamaya Leaks” suggest senior military officials have obstructed the investigation of abuses possibly committed by soldiers and that the secretary of defense may have pressured civilian authorities not to pursue an investigation into an army officer implicated in the Ayotzinapa case.
As of September, there were seven cases before the Supreme Court, filed by human rights groups and opposition parties, challenging the use of the military for law enforcement as unconstitutional.
At least 105,000 people are missing in Mexico, according to official statistics. Authorities believe the true number is likely higher. Nearly 90,000 of them have disappeared since the beginning of the “war” on organized crime in 2006. Thousands continue to disappear every year. More than 36,000 have disappeared since President López Obrador took office.
Authorities believe many of the disappeared have been buried in common graves by state and local officials after forensic services declared them “unidentified” or “unclaimed.” From 2006 to 2020, at least 50,000 bodies passed through the custody of state and local forensic medical services without being properly identified, according to freedom of information requests by activists. Others may have been killed and buried in hidden graves by police, the military, or criminal groups. From 2006 to 2021, authorities reported having found at least 4,000 such graves across the country.
When families report disappearances, prosecutors and police rarely investigate. Families of the disappeared have formed more than 130 “search collectives” to investigate disappearances, including, frequently, by digging up mass graves.
In 2019, a well-respected human rights defender was appointed to head the government’s National Search Commission (CNB). Since then, the CNB has taken steps to update the official missing persons’ registry by requesting information from state and local officials and it has created an online platform to report disappearances anonymously and show real-time numbers of those disappeared, excluding personally identifying information. It has also begun creating a series of Human Identification Centers to exhume bodies from mass graves and attempt to identify them using the registry.
In April, the United Nations Committee on Enforced Disappearances presented the report on its visit to Mexico—its first visit to any country. The committee criticized Mexican officials for their “passive attitude” towards disappearances and expressed concern over “near total impunity” for these crimes. At the time the report was released, just 36 people had been convicted for involvement in enforced disappearances.
Attacks on Journalists and Human Rights Defenders
Journalists and human rights defenders—particularly those who criticize public officials or expose the work of criminal cartels—often face attacks, harassment, and surveillance by government authorities and criminal groups.
Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. From January to September 2022, 15 journalists were killed. In the first half of 2022, Article 19 recorded 331 threats, attacks, or other forms of aggression against journalists. Many journalists self-censor.
Authorities routinely fail to investigate crimes against journalists adequately. The federal Special Prosecutor’s Office to investigate crimes against journalists had opened 1,552 investigations and obtained 32 convictions, including seven for homicide, from its creation in 2010 through September 2022. The vast majority of convictions have been obtained since the current special prosecutor was appointed in 2017.
Mexico is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders. In the first six months of 2022, 12 human rights defenders were killed, according to the human rights groups Comité Cerezo. As with journalists, violence against human rights defenders is rarely investigated or prosecuted.
In 2012, the federal government established the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which provides bodyguards, armored cars, and panic buttons, and helps beneficiaries temporarily relocate in response to serious threats. The mechanism lacks sufficient staff and funding and struggles to coordinate with state and local officials, leaving it sometimes unable to meet protection needs. Eight journalists and two human rights defenders have been killed under the program’s protection, seven of them since President López Obrador took office.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
A wave of states legalized abortion in 2022. As of November, eleven states allowed abortion for any reason up to at least 12 weeks of pregnancy. All states allow abortion in cases of rape. Despite legalization, people continue to face many barriers when trying to access abortion.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that absolute criminalization of abortion is unconstitutional, and that people should not be criminally prosecuted for undergoing the procedure; that state governments do not have the authority to legislate that life begins at conception; and that medical staff’s right to conscientiously object to performing abortions is subject to limits.
In 2021, the government reported around 3,700 killings of women, a quarter of which were considered femicides—killings of women because of their gender. Women’s rights groups say femicide is likely under-reported.
Mexico officially ratified the International Labour Organization Convention on Violence and Harassment (C190) in July 2022. The treaty obligates Mexico to provide comprehensive protections to ensure a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and sexual harassment.
Migrants and Asylum Seekers
Criminal cartels, common criminals, and sometimes police and migration officials prey upon people migrating through Mexico, although crimes against migrants are rarely reported, investigated, or punished.
President López Obrador has intensified efforts to prevent migrants from traveling through Mexico to reach the US. He has deployed nearly 30,000 soldiers for immigration enforcement.
Soldiers and immigration agents operate immigration checkpoints throughout the country. Often, they target Black, brown, or Indigenous people. In May, the Supreme Court ruled these checkpoints unconstitutional, saying they disproportionately affect Indigenous and Afro-Mexican people.
Mexico detained more than 307,000 migrants in 2021—the highest number ever. Mexico’s immigration detention centers are notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary. Staff there often pressure migrants to agree to “assisted return” to their countries and discourage them from applying for asylum even when they say their life could be in danger if sent back.
The López Obrador administration has imposed stricter visa rules and other new entry requirements on travelers from Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. News media reported the US had pressed the administration to tighten entry requirements and prevent migrants from flying through Mexico to reach the US. Since the visa requirement for Venezuelans was put in place in January, the number making the dangerous trip through the Darien Gap, between Colombia and Panama, has skyrocketed.
Mexico’s asylum system is severely overstretched. Since 2013, the number of new applications has nearly doubled every year, but funding has not kept pace. Mexico’s refugee agency relies heavily on funding and other support from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Mexico received more than 130,000 asylum applications in 2022, a record high and the third highest number in the world in 2021, according to UNHCR, but processed just 40,000, including many from previous years. From January to September 2022, it received more than 86,000 applications.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
A wave of states voted to legalize same-sex marriage in 2022. As of November, it was available in all 32 states. In five states (Nuevo León, Aguascalientes, Chiapas, Chihuahua, and Guanajuato), the governor has decided officials should perform same-sex marriages although the state legislature has not reformed the civil code to recognize the practice.
Twenty states have passed laws creating a procedure permitting transgender people to change their names and gender markers on birth certificates through a simple administrative process. In 2019, the Mexican Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling with clear guidelines on legal gender recognition, holding that it must be an administrative process that “meets the standards of privacy, simplicity, expeditiousness, and adequate protection of gender identity” set by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In March, the court expanded the right to legal gender recognition to include children and adolescents.
Under the López Obrador administration, serious gaps remain in protecting the rights of people with disabilities. They lack access to justice, education, legal standing, legal capacity, protection from domestic violence, and informed consent in health decisions. In 2019, Human Rights Watch documented cases of state-run hospitals and private individuals who shackled people with disabilities. Women with disabilities suffer disproportionate violence.
In many states, people with disabilities have no choice but to depend on their families for assistance or to live in institutions, which is inconsistent with their right to live independently and be included in the community under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
In October 2021, following a CRPD committee recommendation, the government publicly apologized to a man with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities who had been imprisoned for four years after a judge had found him unfit to stand trial.
In 2021 the Supreme Court ruled that guardianship was unconstitutional, but federal and state legislatures still need to legislate to ensure legal capacity and supported decision-making for people with disabilities.
In May, Congress passed amendments to the General Health Act prohibiting forced psychiatric treatment and any restraints, including shackling. The reform mandates community-based services and conversion of psychiatric hospitals to general hospitals.
Climate Policy and Impacts
As one of the world's top 15 emitters of greenhouse gases, Mexico is contributing to the climate crisis that is taking a growing toll on human rights around the globe. In 2021, a judge annulled the López Obrador administration’s climate action plan because it did not increase emissions reductions targets in violation of Mexican law. In November 2022, the government announced its intention to present a new more ambitious plan.
The López Obrador administration attempted to reform the constitution to favor the distribution of energy from state-owned fossil-fuel power plants over renewable energy providers, but Congress rejected his proposal in April. In parallel, it has pursued a policy of investment in fossil fuels, acquiring an oil refinery in the US and fast-tracking the construction of another in Dos Bocas, Tabasco. In 2022, more than 70 percent of the federal budget under “climate change mitigation and adaptation effects” was allocated to the transport infrastructure of fossil gas.
Key International Actors and Foreign Policy
Mexico’s foreign policy regarding human rights under the López Obrador administration has been based on the principle of “non-intervention.” In June 2021, Mexico criticized other countries in the region that had condemned the jailing of critics and opposition candidates in Nicaragua, saying that they were intervening in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.
In June 2020, Mexico was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for 2021 to 2022. Mexico highlighted that one of its priorities on the council would be the protection of children. Mexico endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration in May 2021.
In October 2020, Mexico was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council. Mexico did not support a decision to discuss a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on possible crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, China, nor a resolution to renew the independent fact-finding mission to investigate possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela.
In 2020, Mexico appointed itself as one of 23 “Champion countries” of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.