Why the Attacks on Mexico’s Human Rights Defenders?

Mexico stole headlines this week with revelations aggressive spyware technology belonging to the government targeted the country’s human rights and anti-corruption activists. The methods are new, but the targets are not. Journalists critical of Mexico’s nexus of official corruption and rampant organized crime have been killed in increasing numbers.

How complicit is the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto in these human rights violations? Human rights and civil society activists in Mexico are in part responsible for the 2000 demise of one-party rule, protesting government excesses against the Zapatista movement. Attacking these activists threatens Mexican democracy.

Why would Mexican state actors harass, intimidate, and physically attack activists? The state logic of targeting anti-corruption activists differs from the logic of autocratic regime survival. In Mexico, state actors and their hirelings retaliate against activists to ensure continued flow of benefits from their corrupt behavior.

First, corruption pays. Political offices offer benefits to corrupt occupants, including allocation of resources for cronies and selective use of the legal system to punish opponents and protect friends. An increase in available rents in an administrative unit increases corruption in that unit.

Second, corruption can be a vehicle for organized crime. Criminal groups capture local governments for their enrichment, turning the focus of the state away from serving constituents and toward the groups’ front operations and illegal activities. Mexican authorities have a long history of cooperation with or capture by drug cartels and criminal groups.

Fortunately for citizens, and unfortunately for corrupt officials, this gravy train can run out of track. While a corrupt government may hold on to power through vote-buying, the more information citizens gain about their corrupt incumbent politicians, the more willing they are to punish through voting for the opposition. Transparency ought to be an antidote to the abuse of office for personal gain.

However, the link between information about corruption and threats to incumbents is not simple. While voters may punish corrupt incumbents, an alternative in which political participation and civic engagement decline is also possible. Information alone may not suffice to vote out corrupt incumbents. Importantly, information about corruption must come from credible sources to motivate citizens to punish incumbents at the ballot box.

Corruption benefits incumbents, while credible anti-corruption sources represent the biggest threat to the gravy train. As a result, corrupt officials and their beneficiaries best protect themselves by eliminating credible sources: hence the escalating series of attacks on anti-corruption activists, human rights defenders, and journalists.

Yet how do state actors attack Mexican civil society without international backlash? Human rights organizations deplore these attacks, but are unable to directly implicate state actors. In carrying out physical attacks and cyberattacks, it appears that Mexican state actors delegate their dirty work. Hired agents of state violence are harder to control and may be careless, as happened in the harassment of anti-corruption activists. However, the state avoids accountability in a way akin to hiring paramilitaries.

The latest revelations about attacks on human rights defenders will isolate an already unpopular President Peña Nieto and perhaps drive his party, PRI, out of power in the 2018 elections.

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