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LatAm Minute: Luis Rubio on Mexico's Rule of Law Challenge

To establish rule of law, President Enrique Peña Nieto should limit presidential powers. (Image: AP)

April 02, 2015

Rule of law—or the lack of it—is a topic dominating Mexican political discussion these days. The repercussions of a rule of law that is lacking aren’t only felt on issues of justice, but undergird the country’s progress in other areas, too—including economically. Mexico’s Finance Secretary Luis Videgaray recently said the government “can do 10 energy reforms, but if we do not add trust, we will not seize the full potential of the Mexican economy.”

The evidence isn’t just anecdotal either: Per the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, Mexico ranks 79 out of 99 countries evaluated globally, and 12 out of 16 Latin American and Caribbean countries. While Mexico scores in the upper third on the theme of Open Government, its rankings on Order & Security, Civil Justice, and Criminal Justice in particular scrape the bottom of the barrel both regionally and globally.

Mexican political scientist and Woodrow Wilson Global Fellow Luis Rubio has released a new book on this topic titled, A Mexican Utopia: The Rule of Law Is Possible. In it, he argues that the rule of law is the single biggest challenge the country faces today, and therein the most important issue for President Enrique Peña Nieto to address.

The lack of durable institutions, Rubio writes, is due directly to the fact that political power in Mexico is hyper-concentrated around the presidency and the ruling party, and any sense of order is upended every six years when a president’s term is up. But the solution can be found at the very heart of the problem: to establish a rule of law, the president can—and must—redistribute powers away from the presidency and into other institutions. The president should, in essence, “use power to limit power.”

Thus far, government officials have yet to acknowledge the problem domestically, says Rubio, noting that Videgaray gave his statement while in London about the importance for the Mexican government to instill trust. “If that’s the real diagnosis,” says Rubio, “then it’s not only a media stunt to reduce criticism outside. If it’s really what the government believes, then there’s an opportunity.”

The work ahead is considerable, but simply starting the reform process is an attainable goal in the near-term. “If [Peña Nieto] started the process [of reform], he wouldn’t finish it,” says Rubio, “but it would be the beginning of change for radical departure from what Mexico has had, which is the rule of rule, the rule of the president, which has been the tradition of Mexico forever. That’s what needs, I think, to change.”

What’s more, Rubio says, there are two factors that could make Peña Nieto uniquely qualified to tackle the huge task of transforming the country and rule of law. One, the country is in a moment of crisis, Rubio says. Whether the breaking point will come in the form of an economic crisis or social upheaval that forces Peña Nieto’s hand, or if he preemptively takes on the reforms before it gets to that point, is yet to be determined. Two, despite political missteps, Peña Nieto still possesses what Rubio calls “extraordinary political skills” needed to shake the country out of political inertia that’s paralyzed it in the past.