Few in Mexico doubted that Claudia Sheinbaum would win election to the presidency. Bolstered by the popularity of her mentor who currently holds the office and opinion polls that showed her far ahead of her second-place challenger, she had expressed high confidence in a victory, even describing the upcoming vote as a mere “formality.” Still, when the result was announced on June 2, just before midnight, by the chief counselor of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute, even Sheinbaum and her allies in the Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) party seemed taken aback.

The result was a massive landslide unlike any Mexico has seen since the country transitioned to democracy 24 years ago. Upon assuming office on Oct. 1, the former mayor of Mexico City (2018-2023) will become the country’s first female president, and her mandate is overwhelming. She won 60 percent of the votes, and her party crushed the opposition to achieve a comfortable majority in both chambers of the federal Congress.

Moreover, with Morena and its two junior coalition partners having come within an inch of a two-thirds supermajority in both the federal Chamber of Deputies and the Senate and winning control in 24 of Mexico’s 32 states, it will likely be relatively easy for Sheinbaum to broker the deals necessary to change the Constitution.

Mexican voters have essentially given the keys to their country to the chosen successor of outgoing president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a self-declared leftist with a distinct populist style. Even as one segment of the population fears the risk of Mexico becoming a quasi-one-party state, most celebrate the historic proportions of her victory, and Sheinbaum will be able to govern with more freedom than any of her recent predecessors.

Unfulfilled Promises

With an outsized mandate, however, comes an outsized burden of responsibility. A majority of Mexican voters clearly approve of the way López Obrador, who rode a wave of popular anger over decades of corruption, criminal violence, human rights abuses, and disdain of the masses by Mexico’s political elite, has led the country the past six years. To them, a combination of increasing wages, low unemployment, and social policies such as raising pensions and the minimum wage, as well as the historic achievement of crippling a distrusted traditional party system that seemed mostly interested in enriching a small elite, outweighed the many flaws and unfulfilled promises of his government.

None of those unfulfilled promises is perhaps more urgent than the abysmal state of human rights in Mexico. When López Obrador assumed office, he inherited a brutal turf war between criminal groups and the authorities, in which already hundreds of thousands had perished and tens of thousands had disappeared. Every day, more than 10 women in the country are murdered because of their gender, according to reports by human rights organizations and figures by the federal government.

Impunity Reigns

Justice has always been elusive in Mexico. Impunity reigns; more than 90 percent of all reported crimes never lead to a conviction in a court of law, while the vast majority of crimes are never reported. To make matters worse, a significant share of those crimes is committed by agents of the State themselves, whether they be municipal and state police officers or members of the armed forces.

In particular, the extreme violence against journalists, human rights defenders, women, and undocumented migrants stands out. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ, the organization where I work), at least 44 journalists have been killed in Mexico during the López Obrador administration, more than in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan combined during that same period. Only a handful of press killings have led to arrests, even fewer to guilty verdicts in court. None of the murder cases has been solved; according to CPJ’s yearly Global Impunity Index, Mexico occupies an abysmal seventh place, topped only by countries that are or recently have been in a state of war.

Even worse are the relentless attacks against human rights defenders, particularly environmental activists. According to a report by human rights group Red TDT, at least 92 human rights defenders were killed during the first five years of López Obrador’s term. In that same period, 102 environmental activists were killed, according to the Mexican Center for Environmental Rights (CEMDA). It has made the country one of the most dangerous in the world for rights defenders, especially when their activism crosses both State actors and organized crime.

Gender-motivated violence, meanwhile, continues to be rampant. Tens of thousands of women have been reported as disappeared over the past two decades. Newspapers and news websites report gruesome stories of the remains of women found in ditches, unused plots of lands, and mass graves. The bodies often show signs of torture and sexual violence. Once again, few cases ever lead to arrests, let alone a conviction.

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities have barely been able to cope with a steadily increasing number of undocumented migrants and refugees, mostly from South and Central America, who travel through Mexico in large numbers to try to reach the United States. Last year alone, Mexico detained more than 780,000 of them. Migrants are preyed upon by human traffickers and gangs seeking to kidnap and extort them. An untold number of migrants disappears each year, and thousands have died. Moreover, migrant rights activists say Mexican officials themselves are among the offenders. “In some cases, efforts to apprehend undocumented migrants have led to serious violence and even deaths,” Human Rights Watch has reported, citing interviews with migrants, people claiming refugee status, officials, and advocates.


The principal causes of those staggering levels of crimes and human rights abuses are rooted in Mexico’s deeply flawed justice system and endemic corruption, which fuel the impunity that incentivizes those willing and able to use lethal force, be they agents of the State or criminal actors, against any perceived threat against their interests. In last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, Mexico occupies an abysmal 126th place, below Latin American nations such as Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia.

Faith in democratic institutions in the country is falling; according to Latinobarómetro, a regional research group, support for democracy has fallen from 43 percent to 35 percent between 2020 and 2023. This is especially concerning, given that the election that brought López Obrador to the presidency in 2018 is broadly considered to have been one of the freest and fairest in Mexico’s history.

`Hugs, Not Bullets’

Although López Obrador inherited all those problems from his predecessors, his own policies have done little to mitigate them and, in some cases, exacerbated them. His promises of combating corruption have yielded very few tangible results and are limited mostly to rhetoric. Mexico’s weak and eroded justice system has not had any significant reforms that have made criminal investigations more effective. And during his administration, the number of arrests related to organized crime has dropped notably compared with his predecessors.

López Obrador promised to combat crime by implementing a “hugs, not bullets” philosophy, which was supposed to entail retiring the armed forces from security tasks and creating the National Guard, a new elite police corps, in lieu of the oft maligned and now abolished Federal Police. While the National Guard was indeed created, its civilian character quickly disappeared in favor of a military command. Instead of retiring the army and navy from the fight against crime, meanwhile, López Obrador expanded their role into civilian tasks, such as overseeing major construction projects and operating airports, seaports and customs services.

Yet, not only has violence against journalists, women, rights defenders, and migrants continues unabated and has even risen under his leadership, as seen in the statistics above, López Obrador also has increasingly used his hours-long daily morning press conference to attack journalists, activists, and even mothers searching for their disappeared children.

Federal institutions such as the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, which provides State-sanctioned protective measures to activists and reporters at risk, have not been sufficiently supported by López Obrador. The new National Search Commission, ostensibly created to deal with Mexico’s catastrophic forced disappearance crisis, has had little positive impact.

Finally, the president has been strongly criticized for his ongoing efforts to concentrate more and more power in the presidency. Particularly, his attempts to cripple the autonomy of the National Electoral Institute, which oversees elections, the National Human Rights Commission, and the National Institute for Access to Information and Protection of Private Data, have raised alarms among even some critics sympathetic to his political project.


All these issues must be addressed by President-elect Sheinbaum when she is sworn in on Oct. 1. Solving them in the single six-year term Mexican heads of state serve is impossible; the myriad crises she inherits have been decades in the making. Yet her unusually broad mandate does give her extensive powers to implement meaningful change.

Her background as a climate scientist and as mayor of Mexico City, the nation’s most liberal and democratic bulwark, helped build her public profile as a liberal and progressive politician. In her victory speech at the Hilton in the capital, in the early hours of Monday, June 3, she did address briefly what her priorities as head of State will be: diversity, human rights, freedom of expression, security, and the fight against corruption among them.

Where her predecessor largely failed, Sheinbaum will need to build a robust legal and institutional anti-corruption framework that can operate autonomously from the all-powerful executive. She will need to re-assess the role of the military in public security roles and ruthlessly purge law enforcement of the many bad actors that have been either acquiescent of organized crime or colluded with it.

She will need to address Mexico’s forced disappearance crisis and strengthen the National Search Commission, significantly improve the forensic capacities of investigators to identify the remains found in clandestine graves all over the country and strengthen the government’s relationship with the collectives of mostly mothers searching for the disappeared.

She must also bridge the gap between Mexico’s robust and progressive laws against gender violence and the reality for the many Mexican women vulnerable to violence. This will not be an easy task; during her term as mayor of Mexico City, the often-heavy-handed deployment of police during protest marches by feminist collectives in the capital has disappointed many feminist activists.

Journalists and human rights defenders, too, will demand she do better than López Obrador. Institutions such as the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists urgently need review, overhaul, and strengthening. And while she did strike a more conciliatory tone towards journalists and other critics during her victory speech, López Obrador’s constant verbal attacks on critical reporters and activists have proven to be a useful tool to deflect criticism and turn public opinion against his critics, rather than address the issues they raise.

The Shadow of Trump

Dealing with the ongoing mass migration crisis will be perhaps the hardest task. Even for an all-powerful president with broad support in the federal Congress, substantially improving Mexico’s capacity to deal with the hundreds of thousands of mostly Central and South Americans fleeing poverty, violence, or persecution and transiting Mexico to reach the United States, she will depend on the occupant of the White House for any policies in that area to succeed.

That U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were quick to congratulate Sheinbaum on her victory on Monday, in stark contrast with the 32 days López Obrador waited before publicly acknowledging Biden’s win in 2020, suggests that the Biden administration wants to quickly establish an effective working relationship with Sheinbaum.

Should Donald Trump return to the White House, however, all bets may be off. The López Obrador government was successful in shielding itself from too much pressure during the Trump years, but it is unclear yet whether Sheinbaum, who has no foreign policy experience, will be able to do the same.

López Obrador used the novelty of his political movement and the strong opposition of Mexico’s traditional elites to justify inaction or failure. With the party well-established now and with her clear mandate, Sheinbaum won’t have those excuses. Having captured the most votes of any president in democratic Mexico, with a party that completely dominates Congress and a vast majority of state legislatures, she has the power to truly change Mexico. Meaningful, positive change is not only possible, it is the only acceptable outcome.

IMAGE: Mexico’s presidential candidate for the Morena party Claudia Sheinbaum celebrates following the results of the general election at Zocalo Square in Mexico City, on June 3, 2024. Sheinbaum was set to be elected Mexico’s first woman president, exit polls showed, a milestone in a country with a history of gender-based violence.  (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA/AFP via Getty Images)