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Mexico’s next president will be a woman. But violence has overshadowed the glass ceiling being shattered.

Claudia Sheinbaum was campaigning for president in southern Mexico when hooded men approached her car, filming the interaction as they implored her to keep their town from being taken over by gangs.

One man said he felt helpless, and that the government had “never done anything for these lands.” They lived in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state and an increasingly important territory for criminal organizations moving illegal drugs, firearms and migrants from neighboring Guatemala. Sheinbaum thanked the men, shaking one of their hands before her car pulled away.

The former Mexico City mayor is the frontrunner in a landmark election this weekend where Mexico is all but certain to emerge with its first female president – a remarkable achievement in a country known for its patriarchal culture and high rates of gender-based violence, where around 10 women are murdered every day.

Sheinbaum is riding on a wave of popularity with the support of her long-time ally, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and their leftist Morena party. Trailing her in the polls is former senator Xochitl Gálvez, from the conservative PAN party, who is representing a coalition of opposition parties.

But what should have been celebrated as a ground-breaking election has become overshadowed by the bloodiest election campaign in Mexico’s history, and ongoing high levels of violence across the country.

At least 34 political candidates or applicants have been murdered since June 2023 as gangs try and influence those coming into power, according to a report by research group Laboratorio Electoral, which also found hundreds of attacks on candidates and people related to the current electoral process.

And while the murder rate has fallen in Mexico between 2019 and 2022, in absolute numbers the country is still reeling from historically high levels of homicides of around 30,000 people murdered each year, say experts.

The central challenge for the next president will be convincing voters that she can end the near-certain impunity in Mexico; around 95% of all crimes nationwide went unsolved in the country in 2022, according to think tank Mexico Evalua.


Mexico is a world leader when it comes to gender equality in elected office, which was cemented in 2019 constitution reform. It outflanks several countries in terms of women’s parliamentary representation.

Yet Mexico remains a dangerous place to be a woman, with sky-high femicide rates for the region. The most recent data from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography found that at least 11,852 femicides were recorded in the first three years of López Obrador’s presidency – higher than the 7,439 reported during the same period of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency (2012-2018).

With security topping voter concerns, both Sheinbaum and Gálvez have largely remained coy about their proposals. Neither has repudiated a nearly two-decades-long approach of relying on the armed forces to tackle organized crime – which has coincided with historically high levels of homicides.

Sheinbaum, a former climate scientist, has pledged to continue with her predecessor’s policies. She has pointed to her record as Mexico City mayor, with her team indicating having improved conditions for police and better intelligence gathering about criminal networks.

Galvez has been critical of López Obrador’s non-confrontational approach to cartels. She has suggested pulling forces back from domestic security roles, increasing the number of police in violent areas, and building a new high security prison.

“In 2018, millions of Mexicans voted for change with hope, but the truth is that it did not happen,” Gálvez said during a presidential debate in April, taking aim at the incumbent’s approach to tackling organized crime.

“Claudia Sheinbaum is offering to continue the hugs for criminals … I am offering to build a Mexico where we can end violence, but above all, to bet on health and education.”

Both have spoken of the need to strengthen police and civilian institutions, and better use intelligence and coordination. “But the extent to which either one of them really means to emphasize or follow through on that is very unclear,” Brewer said.

Experts have been underwhelmed by the lack of new approaches to the security situation, saying there is a connection between militarization and more bloodshed in the country since its inception in 2006, when former President Felipe Calderón declared an all-out-war against criminal groups.

‘Hugs, not bullets’

Incumbent López Obrador won the presidency in 2018 on a platform of demilitarizing the country’s war against drug cartels, vowing to restore peace with “hugs, not bullets.”

Popular social welfare programs would address the root causes of economic insecurity, instead of violent confrontations with criminal groups, he promised. It was a strategy that saw the son of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman released on the orders of López Obrador in 2019 to avoid bloodshed. He was later re-arrested and extradited to the US.

However, he never really de-militarized public security. López Obrador instead merged several law-enforcement agencies, such as the federal police, to create the National Guard that was, in principle, to be under civilian command. But he soon after placed the body under the Secretary of Defense, sparking criticism across the political spectrum, which said it was furthering militarization in Mexico.

The Supreme Court upheld an opposition complaint and ordered López Obrador to return the National Guard to civilian jurisdiction. He said he would follow suit, but the National Guard still reports to the Secretary of Defense.

This creation was part of what Brewer described as a “populist…and highly visible measure that” intended to give the perception that something is being done about crime. The National Guard has gone on to take over several civilian functions including building infrastructure projects and airport management ­– a situation ripe for corruption, warn Mexico watchers.

Meanwhile, criminal groups have only expanded their reach.

A May report by the Crisis Group documented limited crime-fighting where there were large military deployments in areas most affected by warring cartels. Instead, the report found that “a set of largely unspoken rules has been established, encouraging illegal groups to reduce and conceal the violence they perpetrate,” the report wrote.

“In exchange, authorities have turned a blind eye to a degree of illegality, enabling these organisations to diversify their trafficking operations (including into newer illicit drugs such as fentanyl), expand their extortion rackets, branch out into legal business, and assume greater control of communities and local governments.”

The report found there was also political pressure to reduce the recorded rate of lethal violence has led to “murders being logged under other causes of death or going unrecorded.”

There is a through line between militarization and gender-based violence in Mexico, say experts.

Feminist groups in the country began documenting a “dramatic increase in women being killed by firearms” after 2007 as well as women being targeted in the public sphere,” said Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, assistant professor of Latin American History at George Washington University.

Female homicides often fail to get prosecuted, with 88.6% impunity rate for femicide cases, according to Mexico Evalua.

Both candidates have recognized the crisis of femicide, but Sheinbaum, who holds a sizeable polling lead against Galvaz, has a tense relationship with some feminists “who encountered lots of repression by Mexico City police under the purview of Sheinbaum,” said Kloppe-Santamaría.

Sheinbaum has touted her efforts for women and girls, saying there was “zero impunity” to femicides in Mexico City during her time as leader, and that there was a large reduction in femicides under her watch. Though the claims have not borne out after some scrutiny, say critics.

Amid ongoing “gender-based violence, including femicides and disappearances,” Kloppe-Santamaría said, getting a female president at this moment feels “very paradoxical.”

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