Political polarization is a topic of growing concern in Mexico. As we discuss in the newly released edition of the Mexico Peace Index (MPI), there are long-standing factors that fuel polarization in Mexico, including economic inequality and corruption. In recent years, divisions have intensified owing to particularly contentious and even violent election cycles, as well as increasingly adversarial relationships between voices within government, on the one hand, and the news media, on the other. The latter trend has led to a more polarized media environment, which in turn feeds polarization within the citizenry at large.
A global survey conducted in 2022 found that 52 percent of Mexicans believed their country was very or extremely divided and that 65 percent believed it was unlikely that the divisions could be overcome. Moreover, a 2020 Latinobarómetro survey found that 51 percent of Mexicans felt they could have negative consequences if they freely expressed their opinions.
The growing levels of polarization are reflected in the shift in the approval rate of the federal government along increasingly partisan lines. According to survey data published by El Financiero, in 2002, there were comparatively minor differences in the rates at which people that identified as left-wing or right-wing viewed the federal government. At that time, 45 percent of left-wing people and 66 percent of right-wing people approved of the president – just a 21-point difference. However, over the past two decades, that gap has grown wider with each successive administration. By 2020, the gap in approval rates between the two groups stood at 83 points.
Hostility on social media platforms has also exacerbated polarization in Mexico. A Spanish consulting agency published a study about polarization on the internet across several Latin American countries, analyzing over 600 million tweets between 2017 and 2022 on a variety of issues in each country. In Mexico, the subject of human rights generated the most discussion, while freedom of expression was the most contested topic. Polarized conversations in the country often focused on the murder of journalists, threats from cartels, and human rights violations by authorities.
While polarization hinders unified action across many areas of social concern, one of the most important is related to violence, particularly in Mexico. Polarization has been found to undermine the government’s ability to operate effectively and cohesively, as well as diminish citizens’ trust and willingness to engage in civic processes. The lack of trust in the government and its institutions also leads to less willingness to report criminal activity to the police. According to national survey data, 15 percent of Mexicans say they do not report crimes because of a lack of trust in institutions, and only 51 percent of Mexicans trust the federal government, while less than half trust their municipal or state governments.
Research has also shown that polarization and political fragmentation can exacerbate violence and undermine efforts at building peace. A 2016 study examined the effect of various political compositions across local, state, and federal governments on violence between 2007 and 2012 in Mexico. It found that a municipality governed at the local and state levels by the party in opposition to the governing party at the federal level resulted in twice as much violence as municipalities where the local and state governments were of the same party as the national government. In part, this reflected an inability or unwillingness of government officials to collaborate across party lines in pursuit of violence containment.
More polarized states, where there are sharp divisions between rival political ideologies, tend to have weaker institutions and lower social cohesion. Through the strategic use of increased violence, criminal groups can gain power in such contexts, exploiting divisions and the lack of cooperation between and within the citizenry and the state.
In contrast, cooperation between governmental bodies can greatly contribute to curbing violence. For example, the state of Yucatán has been the most peaceful state for seven consecutive years and its capital city of Mérida has the lowest homicide rate in the country. Some scholars have suggested that its low violence levels are related to the state’s large number of indigenous people, representing half of the overall population, and the ways in which this may help bolster levels of social cohesion and, consequently, the populace’s capacities to resist organized crime.
However, a new study has recognized the vital role played by Yucatán’s political and security institutions in containing violence. Specifically, the state has been able to maintain relatively cohesive intergovernmental relationships over several decades, despite the divergent party affiliations between state and federal authorities. In addition to Yucatán’s productive intergovernmental relations during specific federal administrations, the study also highlights how – within the state – there has been a high degree of continuity in the leadership of the security forces. This was the case even amid changes in the party in power at the state level. The study posits that this consistency in leadership has contributed to permanence and cohesion within and across security agencies.
Reducing violence in Mexico should be a nonpartisan goal. Other states would do well to look to Yucatán’s example for lessons on maintaining a relatively high degree of unified action in its efforts at promoting security. Such efforts reflect the vision of building Positive Peace – which comprises the attitudes, institutions and structures that are necessary to build and sustain peace in the long term. Toward this end, it will be important for states across the country to strengthen the Pillars of Positive Peace, particularly Good Relations with Neighbors, Acceptance of the Rights of Others and Well-Functioning Government.