Remarks of Ambassador Martha Bárcena on Harvard Mx Conference 2020.
It is a pleasure to address this third edition of the Mx Conference 2020.
I want to thank the University of Harvard and particularly the Harvard University Mexican Association of Students (HUMAS) for putting together this important event. You are the perfect example of the young, critical and creative Mexicans that give the U.S. a competitive edge in several fields, including academia.
Today, I want to explain to you the guiding principles and the main priorities of the government of President López Obrador (AMLO), and their impact on the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
AMLO ran on a simple, yet incredibly ambitious platform: to bring about “the peaceful transformation of Mexico” by rooting out corruption from democratic institutions, reduce inequality and improve the security situation in the country.
His election was historic and unprecedented. It was the first time that a left of center candidate was elected president, and also the first time that a president won an election by such a wide margin. He did so with 53% of the total votes, a little more than 30 million people.
The popularity of the movement that swept AMLO into power derived from the realization that Mexico cannot become a full-fledged democracy without eradicating corruption from public life and reducing its extreme levels of inequality.
That a democracy cannot be functional without social inclusion may sound like a truism to you now, but it was never the main focus of previous governments in Mexico.
As a result, a group of few prospered while the rest were told to wait for the “trickle-down” of the economy that never really came. A striking example reflected the untenable state of things: Mexico was the 2nd largest economy in Latin America and had, at the same time, one of the lowest minimum wage in the region.
Merely a year after AMLO’s victory, the region has validated the urgency of inclusive policies, as inequality surfaced as the structural cause of social unrest amongst virtually every country from Guatemala to Argentina.
In Latin America and elsewhere in the world, the accelerated pace at which globalization is evolving has created a sense of dissatisfaction and concern derived from the unequal distribution of income and a high wealth concentration.
The social protests in Chile are paradigmatic of how democracies —even high-income economies— can suffer as a result of inequality. There are many more concrete examples that reflect the social unrest that can be felt across the region: mass demonstrations in Ecuador; strikes in Colombia; the ouster of Evo Morales in Bolivia and even the electoral shifts in Brazil, Peru and Uruguay.
In contrast, the current climate of social peace in Mexico, notwithstanding the undeniable security challenges that we confront, is a result of the faith entrusted in the Mexican government to deliver on its plight to reduce inequalities, close gender gaps, and achieve a more egalitarian social development.
For Mexico, the fight against inequality and corruption is more than a policy prescription. It is the ethos behind all government action and intends to be a transformative call to action for all society.
¿How is Mexico translating all this thought into action? you may ask. A year into AMLO’s tenure, he has achieved a host of progressive victories that intend to cement a new regime of rights for everyone.
The government has put into place disability and old-age pensions (programa para el bienestar de las personas mayores adultas) and price supports for small farms (precios de garantía).
It has also given interest-free microcredits to small businesses (tandas para el bienestar), and it revived a public bank (Banobras) to disburse benefits to the millions of poor who are shut out of the private banking sector.
Moreover, the national minimum wage was raised 16 percent in 2019; 20 percent in 2020 and 100 percent at the northern border zone, and a broad health care reform is being implemented to phase in coverage to the twenty million Mexicans who lack it.
On the other hand, the “Youth Building the Future” program is providing educational and training opportunities for young men and women and it is expected to benefit 2.6 million people. The program has already reached 96% of the municipalities in Mexico, and has enrolled half a million women and almost 400,000 men, with the ultimate goal of decreasing “not in employment, education or training” (NEET) young people.
The government is implementing one the largest productive restoration programs in the world: “Sowing life”. It involves both increasing the number of trees across Southeast Mexico and Central America, in order to ease economic tension, provide jobs and prevent land degradation.
This is a unique agroforestry employment program that has already resulted in the planting of 500,000 hectares of timber-yielding and fruit trees, while providing food security and contributing to climate change mitigation.
The great pending task is to reactivate economic growth to make sure that the rights guaranteed by this government can be sustained and taken to be the new minimal conditions for real democracy in Mexico in the future.
The focus on social inclusion, however, is incomplete if it doesn’t address the grave and serious security situation in the country. This was fully acknowledged by the government as it began its mandate with the highest level of violence than any previous administration.
A successful approach to fight organized crime is also inseparable from a wider effort to eradicate corruption from public life in the country. According to the OECD, the cost of corruption is estimated to be between 5 and 10 percent of Mexico's gross domestic product, and corruption and organized crime have shown to have a symbiotic relation to one another.
In the past, the “War on Drugs” approach guided the efforts to fight organized crime in Mexico.
The government devoted unprecedented resources to eradicate crops, confiscate drug shipments, destroy clandestine labs and disarticulate drug trafficking organizations.
However, the excessive emphasis on the punitive and prohibitionist approach contributed to generate a spiral of violence with no clear results on sight. The “War on Drugs” failed disastrously.
In 2007, before this so called “war” began, Mexico had a murder rate of 9.7 per 100, 000 inhabitants. Ten years later, in 2017, the figure had risen to 25 per 100,00 before the Lopez Obrador government took power. From 9.7 to 25…two-five… in a ten-year span…a 157% increase.
What’s worse: drug consumption in both sides of the border has continued to rise.
Similarly, the rate of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. has more than tripled over the past two decades. 70, 237 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in 2017.
In response, Mexico put forward a new security vision that is human centered and considers that both the enforcement actions of the military and the newly created National Guard must operate hand in hand with a comprehensive approach to prevent the recurrence of violence.
We are addressing violence root causes through institution consolidation, reconciliation, and a social, political and economic transformation.
Given the fairly stable or increasing international demand for drugs, the idea that there can be a full and permanent suppression of the supply side is unrealistic and disingenuous. We need sensible policies, not keep playing whack-a-mole.
The drug problem is a shared problem and Mexico is promoting a more effective collaboration with the U.S., based not only on a criminal justice approach, but also focusing on addressing social grievances, reinforcing prevention strategies as well as strengthening public health and care for victims and vulnerable groups.
Mexico considers that drug trafficking can only be effectively tackled from an economic perspective, and not only by combating its operations, because the dismantlement of criminal networks can only be possible if we go after their financial networks. Mexico’s Intelligence Financial Unit is at the forefront of these efforts, in order to disrupt their business model.
An integral part of Mexico’s new focus relies on increasing the cooperation and coordination between U.S. and Mexican enforcement agencies.
Therefore, the U.S.-Mexico High Level Security Group (GANSEG) has been revamped and reorganized, in order to address drug policy; money laundering; arms trafficking, and consolidation of judicial institutions. One of our priorities revolves around reducing the illicit trafficking of firearms originated in the U.S., as they are used in 70% of the homicides in Mexico.
The cooperation between our two countries will allow us to tackle together the rise of new challenges like the use of fentanyl and its destructive effects on ordinary Mexicans and Americans.
We understand that our bilateral cooperation is vital even though our visions and policies can differ.
We see the inherent challenges that this entails but we are convinced of the necessity of a continuous dialogue, especially on divisive issues, because as long as we remain neighbors, American and Mexican futures will be intertwined.
Today, the U.S.-Mexico relationship is at a crossroads, and the decisions that we take from now on will impact the direction of both our countries and the lives of millions of people.
This reality is, perhaps, more evident if you look at the intensity of our free trade.
Mexico is now the top U.S. trade partner, ahead of Canada and China. Total trade between Mexico and the U.S., from January to November 2019, reached $567.8 billion. In other words, Mexico accounts for 15% of all U.S. trade worldwide. Additionally, 28 U.S. states considered Mexico one of its two main exporting markets and, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the livelihoods of 5 million Americans depend on trade with our country.
These numbers made us renegotiate NAFTA with a vision for the future, in order to support mutually beneficial trade leading to freer markets, fairer trade, and robust economic growth in North America.
As per its obligations under USMCA and a longstanding conviction of President Obrador to protect workers, Mexico adopted a Labor Reform that upended previous and anachronic labor laws in Mexico and create new obligations that will ensure workers can freely vote for their union representation and contracts, and guarantee them new salaries in accordance with the North American standards.
This is a resounding victory for ordinary workers across Mexico and it means that the competitivity of the Mexican economy will no longer be based on low wages.
With the passing of USMCA, Mexico accomplished three additional objectives:
1)To support North America’s competitiveness, with rules of origin that strengthen regional value chains
2) To increase trade and investments, and
3) To restore certainty, providing the business community with the confidence it needs to invest and hire, strengthening dispute settlement mechanisms and incorporating a review mechanism to help keep the agreement in line with economic reality.
Besides our free trade, migration is the other great issue that lies at the core of both the U.S. and Mexico shared history.
Mexico knows what migrants are capable of, since Mexican men and women, who arrived after the First World War to this country, built its railroads, its houses and its skyscrapers. Mexicans are, today, central to the social, economic and cultural life of the United States.
As the first female Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S., I have proudly repeated that the Latino community, and among them, the Mexican community, are the past, the present and the future of this country.
At a time when migrants are on the rise around the world and immigration continues to reshape our societies, there is also a rise in disinformation and a large-scale exploitation of their vulnerabilities for political purposes.
The Mexican government is committed to address the root causes of migration and to protect the human rights of both migrants and the Mexican community in the United States.
The goal of the Mexican Government has been to assist the humanitarian needs of migrants, including migrant women. More than half of that population on the move are women, so whenever we talk about migrants the story is incomplete without the gender perspective.
Migration is a historic and social phenomenon that is an essential part of humanity.
No country and no government can stop migration, but we all can make an effort and adopt the necessary public policies to have an orderly, safe and regular migration.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, and our history as humanity and, in this particular case, the history of this great country, is intertwined with the history of migrants.
Today, the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the migratory flows from Central America into the U.S. is something we have been determined to alleviate. The Mexican Government will not shy away from its responsibilities, and will continue to advocate for a long-term solution and the respect for human rights.
It is urgent to address the real drivers of migration in the region, because otherwise we will continue to put band aids on an open wound.
Central America faces an insufficient and exclusionary economic growth; low levels of per capita social spending; challenging demographics, chronic violence, and an enduring gap in wages and productivity with the United States.
The real answer for us is to effectively address these structural causes by improving the quality of life of people in their places of origin and allowing human mobility to become a safe option.
Mexico has worked, alongside El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and the active participation of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean to device a Comprehensive Development Plan.
This Development Plan seeks to create a space for sustainable development and local opportunities in the Central American region.
The Plan contemplates diverse proposals organized around four strategic pillars: 1) stimulating economic development; 2) social well-being, including promoting universal access to social rights; 3) environmental sustainability and adaptation to climate change, and 4) comprehensive management of the migratory cycle.
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the 9 states in south-southeast Mexico make up a market of 60 million people, with access to both oceans and a privileged geographical situation, great natural biodiversity and cultural diversity, with a vocation for integration and production capacities waiting to be developed.
The government of Mexico is well aware that all of the opportunities that stand before us cannot be fully seized, and will not be fully seized, without a careful reconsideration of the difficulties that lie ahead.
There is no silver bullet that will resolve all of our challenges overnight, but we are confident that we are moving in the right direction.
I want to end by appealing to your position of privilege as students and academics to keep debating the pressing issues that we face, in order to devise the solutions that will solve today and tomorrow’s challenges.
Your critical voices are fundamental because we find ourselves at a particular time in history were facts and reality are being regularly contested, in a way we haven’t witnessed before in a very long time.
Fear is being used as a divisive tool to advance political agendas and erode trust in our ability to understand each other.
As future leaders of Mexico and of the world, I want to encourage you to seize the opportunity to turn fear and anger into constructive action and hope.
Now more than ever, we need to build bridges of understanding and not barriers of intolerance and hate.
 Eight permanent binational subgroups: Drug Policy; Migration and Border Security; Money Laundering and Financial Crimes; Cybersecurity and Technology; Arms Trafficking; Risks and Emergency response; Armed Forces, and Strengthening of Judicial Institutions. Four temporary groups: Merida Initiative; Special Issues; JLG asset recovery, and Criminal Policy.