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Kevin ClarkeJune 06, 2024
Ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum shows her ink-stained thumb after voting during general elections in Mexico City, Sunday, June 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)Ruling party presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum shows her ink-stained thumb after voting during general elections in Mexico City, Sunday, June 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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An Airbnb host in La Condesa, one of Mexico City’s most fashionable neighborhoods, recently implored his American guests to be mindful of their water consumption during their brief visit, even urging them to set aside water recovered from a bucket in the shower to flush the rental apartment’s toilets and water its plants. That unusual tourism advisory is an example of the kinds of adaptations Mexico City residents have been forced to accept as one of the world’s largest cities draws closer to “day zero,” when the capital city’s taps will run dry.

An official estimate from the National Water Commission warns that day could come as soon as the end of June.

Mexico City’s water catastrophe is just one of the many leftover crises that incoming president Claudia Sheinbaum will have to confront when her historic term begins in October. President-elect Sheinbaum is the first woman and the first person of Jewish descent to lead Mexico. She is the second president elected from the Morena Party, a progressive-populist movement established in 2014. In 2018, Morena was the engine that delivered her predecessor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to the presidency.

The motto of Mr. López Obrador’s campaign had been: “For the good of all, first the poor.” Six years later, by raw numbers Mr. López Obrador has been true to this commitment: The outgoing president has significantly increased welfare spending for historically marginalized groups, and the number of officially poor in Mexico under AMLO, as the popular president is acronymically known, was reduced from 52 million to 47 million. That anti-poverty progress was especially impressive because it was achieved during a period that included major economic dislocations like the Covid-19 pandemic. The outgoing president tripled the minimum wage and quadrupled government pensions for senior citizens.

But critics charge that Mr. López Obrador has proved too authoritarian and too volatile. They say that he has been robbing Mexico’s youth to buy the support of its seniors, but he has enjoyed great popularity among everyday Mexicans. He leaves office with a 60 percent approval rating. Ms. Sheinbaum may not have the luxury of buying anyone’s affection with anti-poverty largesse. The López Obrador presidency will conclude with a federal deficit equaling 6 percent of the gross domestic product, which the Treasury has vowed to address.

“There needs to be fiscal reform,” Isidro Morales, an economics and international relations expert, told The Associated Press. Otherwise, he warned, citing Mexico’s decreasing oil income as one problem, “Claudia is going to have her hands tied.”

Mr. López Obrador says he plans to go quietly into political retirement, but dealing with the potential interventions and sideline criticisms of this beloved, powerful retiree—AMLO playing Benedict to Ms. Sheinbaum’s Francis—will be just one of the incoming president’s major challenges.

Mexico’s water problem predates her resume-building tenure as mayor of Mexico City, but under her leadership, the president-elect continued a political tradition of kicking the water can down the road. With day zero looming, that will no longer be possible. According to the National Water Commission, the Cutzamala System—which provides nearly a quarter of the capital’s water supply—is at a historic-low capacity.

Mexico has been dealing with increasingly hotter and drier conditions due to climate change. The city’s sprawl, its growing population and the diversion of vast amounts of water to agriculture in the region have not helped. The greater metropolitan region, home to 22 million people, is itself a geological improbability. During the last half-century, Mexico City expanded over an ancient lake bed that has been compressing rapidly in recent years, especially as a vast aquifer system beneath the city is drained faster than it can be naturally refilled.

Mexico’s capital suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of urban subsidence, or sinking ground. Its cracking sidewalks and streets, crumbling apartment building foundations, and sinking civic and religious monuments are a mute testimony to how far the city has literally fallen. Some neighborhoods have been sinking more than 20 inches each year.

The sinking complicates the city’s already poor water management. Broken pipes big and small mean that some 40 percent of the municipal water supply is lost each day.

Ms. Sheinbaum, who holds a Ph.D. in energy engineering, has committed herself both to economic growth and a green agenda for the future. She will have to juggle those ambitions as she manages another potentially epic ecological disaster courtesy of another AMLO legacy, the $30 billion Tren Maya.

The rail network may prove to be a great economic boon to Mexico and especially the Yucatán region, a monument to Mr. López Obrador’s big-government optimism, but it is also rapidly realizing some of its critics’ worst ecological and archeological nightmares. The train line, constructed and managed by the Mexican army, storms through the jungle of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, connecting tourist beach resorts on the coast with Mayan archaeological sites in the interior in a 966-mile loop around the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo.

Thousands of concrete and iron support pilings for the railway’s elevated sections have punched through the region’s fragile and unique ecosystem, breaking into its thousands of interconnected limestone caverns and upsetting the delicate subterranean environment.

The damaged caves are part of a vast system of underground rivers and surface swimming holes, called cenotes, that make up the Great Maya Aquifer, one of the world’s largest. It remains a troubling unknown what impact these ecological injuries will have on the unique and fragile ecosystem. More worrisome is the potential impact on an aquifer that is providing drinking water for millions of Mexican people, or how the region will deal with substantially higher numbers of tourists envisioned by the project.

“Pouring concrete into a cavern, directly into the aquifer, without any concern or care,” an environmentalist told The Associated Press. “That’s total ecocide.”

Another major challenge for Ms. Sheinbaum is a chronic nationwide dilemma left unresolved by Mr. López Obrador, and in fairness, by all of her modern predecessors: high rates of violent crime, often propelled by the national narco-industrial complex. Mr. López Obrador came to power promising to put an end to the nation’s devastating war against the drug cartels. His “hugs, not bullets” (“abrazos, no balazos”) attempted a détente with the drug lords that has been roundly criticized as ineffective. Everyday crime and the occasional operatic homicidal spectacles orchestrated by the drug cartels remain a persistent menace to Mexican life.

Homicide rates have slipped only slightly from the historically elevated rates that followed the declaration of the war on drugs and the cartels in 2006. The government credits Mr. López Obrador’s step back from that war for the decline; critics say security forces have ceased looking for or counting the missing and the dead.

Even the Catholic Church in Mexico felt compelled to challenge Mr. Lopez Obrador’s hands-off approach to the cartels and apparent indifference to everyday criminal violence, particularly in the aftermath of the dramatic murders of a number of Catholic priests, among them the murders of Jesuit priests Javier Campos and Joaquín Mora Salazar in northern Mexico in 2022. Stepping into the civic space created by the national government’s withdrawal, Mexico’s bishops have, remarkably, negotiated cartel truces that have reduced homicidal turf wars in some states.

Mexico’s Jesuits and Mexican bishops have pressed for the restoration of local law and order after years when Mr. López Obrador increasingly outsourced security issues to the Mexican army or the National Guard established during his presidency. Critics say overreliance on national security forces has undermined local police, and cartel leaders and other localized criminal operations have stepped into the void.

It is not yet clear if Ms. Sheinbaum plans to change course on crime and the government’s approach to the narco aristocracy that in some parts of Mexico have achieved a near feudal indifference to the central government. She may follow the lead of other Latin American neighbors and adopt the civil scorched-earth policy employed by President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador.

Mr. Bukele’s mano dura, or “zero tolerance,” campaign against Salvadoran gangs has reversed years of escalating crime and homicide rates in El Salvador, but at the cost, critics say, of basic human rights and constitutional protections. El Salvador once had the world’s highest homicide rate; now it maintains perhaps the world’s highest incarceration rate. Nearly 80,000 people have been rounded up in prisons, and civil society groups report that thousands among them are innocent of any crime. But the Salvadoran public seems to have accepted Mr. Bukele’s increasingly authoritarian style as a small price to pay for the freedom from gang and street violence that he has delivered.

Ms. Sheinbaum is a data-crunching, pragmatic socialist, by most accounts. She was raised in an activist household by parents traumatized by the Mexican security clampdown of 1968 that led to the deaths of hundreds of student protesters. Should she decide to follow Mr. Bukele’s populist path and deploy brute force to contain Mexico’s street crime and firmly counter the cartels, it would represent a complete repudiation of that political heritage.

Managing both the border and Mexico’s tricky relationship with its powerful neighbor to the north will likely prove Ms. Sheinbaum’s greatest challenge as Mexico’s new leader. In recent weeks, fortunately for her, the pile-up of humanity at the border appears to be ebbing—and an annual spring spike in migration to the U.S. border has so far not materialized.

But managing a similar humanitarian catastrophe at Mexico’s southern border will probably bedevil her term as much as it did that of her predecessor. The unexpected relief at the northern border this month, in fact, has been associated with increased vigilance of Mexican immigration officials and security forces.

During her campaign, the president-elect emphasized the economic roots of the hemisphere’s current migration crisis. Indeed, migrants from economically broken nations near (Haiti, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela) and far (Russia, China, sub-Saharan African states) are among the many national groups passing through Mexico on their way to the United States. Ms. Sheinbaum proposes greater efforts, in conjunction with Mexico’s Tio Sam, to address those root causes for migration before migrant tides reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

Finally, how she will govern remains an unknown as Ms. Sheinbaum prepares for her historic role. After winning 60 percent of the popular vote and with her party now holding a supermajority in the Mexican Congress, there may be little to stop her from changing the Mexican constitution to consolidate Morena’s continuing hold on power.

Mr. López Obrador devoted a lot of his energy as president to buttressing his own image and authority while overseeing a steady decline in democratic institutions. Will the new president continue on that path, repeating the political “success” of Mr. López Obrador and other nouveau caudillos like Mr. Bukele in El Salvador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela?

Come November, she may even have a far more powerful authoritarian-populist role model to emulate—and contend with—just north of the Mexico border.

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