The words rang out through Tijuana’s Río Zone on a recent afternoon: “El INE no se toca.” Don’t touch the INE, the crowd chanted, in defense of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute. The protest came four days after approval of an electoral reform package that includes slashing the budget of the autonomous elections agency — a move that has raised fears that Mexico’s democracy is losing ground as the country prepares to elect a new president next year.
As some 2,000 protestors marched down Tijuana’s Paseo de los Heroes two Sundays ago, similar demonstrations took place across the country, with the largest gathering drawing tens of thousands of people to Mexico City’s giant Zócalo square. The new law, championed by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his MORENA party supporters, began taking effect last week — but opponents are calling on Mexico’s Supreme Court to reverse it on constitutional grounds.
I followed these demonstrations with much interest and a feeling of poignancy.
When I first arrived in Tijuana in the mid-1990s, Mexico was in the throes of a transition to electoral democracy after seven decades of rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, which maintained power through widespread fraud and coercion. Baja California stood at the vanguard of that change, a bastion of Mexico’s political opposition. It had been the first state to break the grip on PRI’s power, when Ernesto Ruffo Appel of the National Action Party became the first non-PRI governor in Mexico since 1929.
But now Mexico — and Baja California — are at a far different political moment. Three decades later, demonstrators are on the streets, fearful of losing hard-fought gains. They worry the country is backsliding into authoritarianism with the weakening of INE, an independent agency funded by the government with the task of administering elections.
Through my years of covering Tijuana, INE has been a steady presence over a series of political transitions at the local, state and federal levels. Every election day, I looked forward to driving to polling stations, or casillas, set up across the city — from the humblest colonias at the outskirts to the tony neighborhoods near the Caliente racetrack to the airport and central bus stations, where travelers could cast ballots. Mostly, they opened on time, often with lines of voters already waiting and a row of observers from the competing political parties taking note of any irregularities.
Alejandra Salado, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Baja California, says Mexico has made great strides under INE: “We’ve gotten to the point where we can now say we don’t know who will win elections,” said Salado, who studies Mexico’s electoral system. “Whereas before, it was clear, that the PRI would always win.”
Over the years, INE has built up a corps of career professionals hired for their expertise in different areas, she said. If the reforms passed last month are carried out, she said, “it would imply a massive cut in personnel, which would of course disrupt INE, and this puts at risk the organization of elections.”
INE’s defenders, including many in academia, say it has been a pillar of Mexico’s democracy, providing structure, training and administrative support for these citizen-run elections. But its detractors, led by Mexico’s president, say it is a costly and over-staffed bureaucracy, and that any money saved would better be spent on the country’s poor.
One academic who has not joined the chorus of criticism is Victor Alejandro Espinoza Valle, a political scientist and president of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a government think tank based in Tijuana. The law “forces the electoral body to do more with less,” said Espinoza, an avowed Obradorista. Though the reforms are less than ideal, “political democracy is not at risk,” he told me.
As elsewhere in Mexico, the reforms have been polarizing here at the border, with some business leaders joining former mayors, members of opposition parties and ordinary citizens in calling on the Supreme Court to reverse the reforms.
But Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila, a supporter of the Mexican president and member of MORENA, stood staunchly behind the new law last week. “We are certain that the reforms … not only nurture democracy, but in terms of budget, promote the wellbeing for the families of our country.”
Even INE supporters concede there is a need for reforms — just not the ones passed by the Mexican Congress last month. Joining the Tijuana protest was Gaston Luken Garza, a former federal legislator from Baja California who headed the state electoral committee in the mid-1990s and served on the general board of IFE (INE’s predecessor) from 2001 to 2003.
He’s counting on the Supreme Court to strike down the law, calling it “retroactive and regressive and in fact plainly unconstitutional.” Like other opponents of the reforms, he fears INE won’t be able to perform its tasks if the measures are allowed to stand. “They are just completely slashing the INE and they are still asking the INE to comply with all its obligations. It will not be able to comply.”
In Other News
- A fishing leader in San Felipe, Sunshine Rodriguez, detained since November 2020 on suspicion of totoaba bladder trafficking the Upper Gulf of California, was released after a federal judge in Hermosillo ruled that Mexican federal prosecutors had failed to prove their case. (Baja Post, Voz de la Frontera, Zeta)
- Migrants from the northwest African country of Mauritania were among a group of 79 migrants taken into custody in Tijuana by Mexico’s National Migration Institute. (Zeta, Fox5)
- Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography have found that sewage-polluted coastal waters at the U.S.-Mexico border transfers to the air in sea spray aerosols and “reaches people on land.” (Scripps, San Diego Union-Tribune, KPBS)
- An international expo of artisans from Mexico and other parts of the world takes place March 17 to March 20 at the Baja California Center in Rosarito Beach. The event, called Tlaqueparte, will feature some 200 artisans.
- San Diego County Board of Supervisors chair Nora Vargas was honored last week in Tijuana with keys to the city. Vargas was born in Tijuana.