Why you should care
Because the political tides in Mexico might finally be turning.
Emilio Álvarez Icaza stands in the center of Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square, rallying the crowd with promises to reform the federal government by tackling “chronic impunity” and eliminating “friends with benefits.” The 52-year-old sociologist is the leader of Ahora (“now” in Spanish), a collaborative movement he launched in February 2017 to revamp Mexico’s political system. Smiling and chatting as he might to a friend, he tells OZY that his goal is nothing less than redefining how the affairs of government are conducted in a country of 127.5 million.
The significance of Icaza launching his nonpartisan campaign at Tlatelolco Square was not lost on his supporters. On a similarly chilly day in October 1968, rivers of student protesters convened there to challenge the authoritarian regime of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled the country for 70 consecutive years. And when they congregated at the plaza in protest, a premeditated CIA-backed Mexican military brutally massacred them.
Fifty years later, Icaza is challenging Mexico’s political elites while galvanizing his supporters to demand a top-down cleanup in the corridors of government. Ahora, which hopes to enter Icaza as an independent candidate in 2018’s presidential elections, is quickly gaining ground among students, activists, intellectuals and others focused on rooting out endemic corruption. And an aggressive social media strategy driven by young volunteers is pulling in waves of followers. “These actions, combined with a powerful discourse, are our limited resources,” Icaza says. “We don’t want money, because then we’ll be asked for paybacks with favors — that’s the cocaine of the Mexican electoral system.”
Politics here need to be done differently — not with rivers of money.
Alfredo Figueroa, member of Ahora
Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the U.S.–based Wilson Center, recognizes the significance of having independent presidential candidates for the first time in the country’s history, but he thinks Icaza’s odds of winning are slim. “None of the polling that I’ve seen suggests that Icaza has strong name recognition,” he says. “But independents will muddy the waters because they’re going to take away votes from other parties in disproportionate ways” — reshaping the political arena and entrenched party system.
Icaza knows what he’s up against. “The PRI isn’t just a political party but rather a political culture that has permeated the rest of the Mexican system’s forces with corruption and public deceit,” he says. To loosen PRI’s hold, his citizen-driven initiative is recruiting grassroots representatives to promote an anti-corruption agenda and kick-start a meaningful shift toward democracy, where impunity, authoritarianism, media control and human rights abuses have no place, he insists.
Systematic profiling and dictatorship-like murders were the norm in Mexico under PRI rule until 2000, when a regime change took place. And though the National Action Party (PAN) took over until the PRI’s 2012 comeback, Ahora claims the new administrations didn’t scrap the existing power structures. Worse, the rash of human rights violations that have been documented since 2012 — from forced disappearances to government spying on activists and journalists — suggests that history is not altogether past. “I left the commission because [the situation in] Mexico was hurting me,” says Icaza, the former executive secretary at the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. (After repeated requests, top PRI officials were not available for comment.)
Icaza was born three years before the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre; his father was a civil engineer turned social strategist and his mother raised 14 kids. From an early age, he became aware of Mexico’s problems — his parents founded a nongovernmental organization offering legal help to the politically persecuted under PRI’s stronghold. As a boy scout, he hiked Popocatépetl, one of Mexico’s active volcanoes, where he saw the brutal living conditions of the poorest citizens in remote corners of the country. His Catholic upbringing introduced him to church-related social activism, setting him on a path to community engagement that led to a career in human rights.
After seven years of schooling (a sociology degree at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City and a master’s in social sciences), he joined his parents’ NGO. Then, prior to joining the OAS, he spent eight years as president of Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission and, from 1999 to 2001, served as the youngest-ever electoral counselor at Mexico’s elections authority.
Alfredo Figueroa, a fellow electoral counselor and member of Ahora, has known Icaza for more than 20 years. “Emilio has the personal, professional and political background that … can push for a real transition to democracy in Mexico,” he says. “Politics here need to be done differently — not with rivers of money. And there won’t be a solution if we don’t organize ourselves and participate politically.”
But Wood warns that “corruption undermines everything in Mexico” — a systemic problem he predicts will endure for another 10 years, if not longer. “We should expect that in a young democracy like Mexico, there’s going to be recurring electoral fraud,” he adds. Vote buying in Mexico is common to the point of acceptance, but Ahora intends to stop it — in part by targeting millennials, a generation that is fed up and feels unrepresented by those in office, Icaza says. Of Mexico’s 90 million registered voters, nearly 25 percent of those who voted in the past two presidential elections were between 20 and 30 years old. But with little trust in the legitimacy of the electoral process, voter turnout is an ongoing challenge, hovering at just 60 percent.
Ahora’s unorthodox approach is drawing attention — and with plans to expand its network of local representatives, Icaza hopes to reach all of Mexico’s corners in the run-up to the elections in July 2018. Currently, Ahora has recruited 40,000 representatives — a discouragingly small figure given the country’s population — but each one is tasked with enlisting others, creating a multiplying effect to bring them to a target exceeding 120,000 by 2018.
“Icaza is going after crony capitalism and wants transparency,” Wood says — an agenda built on what many voters agree are Mexico’s top priorities if it is to move forward. Even so, Wood thinks the party has little chance of success at the polls. “The problem he is going to have is that everyone will say, ‘Icaza’s got no chance of being elected.’” But the election, Wood quickly points out, isn’t the only prize: The larger objective is breaking the grip of government corruption. “It’s a public policy experiment that will hopefully bear fruit in another administration.”