What Can U.S. Policymakers Learn from Mexico’s Attacks on Academia?

This power grab will likely gut the Mexican research and development capacity it seeks to protect—politicizing research doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record of success, especially when paired with cuts to already underfunded research budgets.


Source: Sashenka Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.

One of the more bizarre stories of the current Mexican administration appears to have recently come to an end when, in November, a Mexican court ordered the Mexican federal prosecutor’s office to drop a criminal investigation of three eminent Mexican academics charged with serious racketeering and money laundering offenses usually reserved for cartel leaders.

Professors charged with running organized crime rings is a strange enough concept on its own, even for those used to the unique dynamics of Mexican politics. But what really pushed the saga of these academics into the twilight zone is that this marked the second time they have had to defend themselves against these same charges.

The traditional constitutional principle of double jeopardy—to not be accused of the same crime twice—should have convinced the authorities to back off, but creative minds in Mexico City thought they’d give it another try. Thankfully, the court wasn’t having it.

The supposed crime of these alleged academic mobsters? To have participated, along with 28 other professors, in the management of a state committee for promoting scientific research, the Foro Consultivo, Científico y Tecnológico (FCCyT) from 2013 to 2018.

The investigation seemed normal enough at first. In 2019, officials from the then-new Mexican administration accused these 31 researchers of misappropriating around USD 13 million in funding to spend on offices, trips, meals, and other allegedly unauthorized or excessive expenditures.

At first glance, this appeared to be an unfortunate but not altogether uncommon story of allegedly corrupt individuals taking advantage of their positions. However, the situation quickly devolved into something bizarre.

Instead of simply accusing them of embezzlement, as one might expect, federal prosecutors treated them like cartel kingpins. Not only did they file extraordinarily serious racketeering charges, but they also sought a sentence of up to 40 years and asked the court to hold them without bail in a maximum security prison pending trial—a measure usually reserved for extremely dangerous individuals.

Fortunately for the academics, they had kept receipts of the Foro‘s spending, so to speak. In mid-2021, a court denied the state’s pre-trial detention request and stated that there was no evidence of criminal activity. A month later, undeterred, the state tried to arrest the professors again. Again, a judge refused. And in January 2023, another court dismissed the charges outright for lack of evidence. The prosecutors appealed. They lost.

That should have put the case to rest, given the Mexican Constitution’s Double Jeopardy clause.

Our fearless Mexican G-men were, however, undaunted by both the court’s decision and the Constitution. Instead of moving on, they sent the case files down the metaphorical hall to a different office and restarted the investigation—until yet another court put its foot down in November.

In effect, this is an attempt to revive the practice of “absolver de la instancia,” in which the state retains the right to charge the defendant again for the same crime based on new evidence after dismissal of a criminal charge for insufficient evidence or a not-guilty verdict. Article 23 of the Mexican Constitution prohibits this, because—as one can see here—it lets the government hang a judicial sword of Damocles over defendants for the rest of their lives.

If this now sounds like a witch hunt, instead of corrupt nerds living large, you’re right.


What Really Happened?

Evidence points to a vendetta by two high-ranking appointees of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—María Elena Álvarez-Buylla Roces, head of Mexico’s federal science foundation, and Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero. Álvarez-Buylla was upset with the academic community for publicly opposing budget cuts. And the same community had opposed awarding Gertz, a lawyer, a title for career excellence in scientific research.

Whatever the reason, federal prosecutors responded with the judicial equivalent of a nuclear strike that seemed designed to prove a point. The scientific community certainly views it that way. They signal that this is part of a broader effort by the Mexican state to pull all scientific endeavors into its political orbit and control, while failing to do the one thing that would almost certainly advance research in Mexico—earmark more money. (Mexico consistently lags behind other large regional economies like Brazil in investing in research as a percentage of GPD, with numbers similar to Costa Rica.)

Key to this effort is the new Law on Humanities, Science, Technology and Innovation. Passed in mid-2023, it creates what the government calls “sovereign science” (la ciencia soberana). In practice, this means (1) consolidated federal control over scientific research and development (by an executive committee that includes the military and excludes academics); (2) a major extension of state power over publicly and privately-funded research; and (3) an aggressive attempt by the Mexican state to stake a claim to intellectual property derived from research and development (R&D) linked to public financing. In parallel, the government axed more independent sources of financing like state-funded trusts.

The Mexican courts will have a say in whether the law is constitutional, but given the government’s recent attacks on the federal judiciary, judges will be under massive pressure to give the executive branch what it wants.

The law’s focus on intellectual property also goes hand-in-hand with attacks by the Mexican president on foreign investors engaged in “nearshoring” in Mexico, accusing them of wasting public funds and calling them “bodies without souls.” No wonder Mexican patent applications and industrial designs in applications have steadily fallen since 2018.


Takeaways for U.S. Policymakers

First, the current Mexican administration seeks a stranglehold on R&D in Mexico. The new legal regime views all R&D through a political lens and asserts a political and legal stake in most R&D activities in the country moving forward. This posture will likely continue should the ruling party remain in power after the 2024 elections.

Second, “brain drain” from Mexico will likely accelerate. Academics with a true passion for research (rather than for politics) will not thrive in this environment, where resources are scarce and come with political strings attached. Those who can leave, will. Recruiters from U.S. universities are doubtless already taking note.

Third, U.S. companies locating any important R&D activities in Mexico should tread carefully and lawyer up. Not only are they more open to politically-motivated attacks than ever, their intellectual property is at greater risk. There is irony here, given that geopolitics has given Mexico a rare and time-limited opportunity to “nearshore” U.S. investment previously destined for China. But carpe diem is not the motto of the day. Instead, Mexico has brought in just 17 percent of foreign direct investment in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2022. In comparison, Brazil attracted twice as much, despite having an economy just 30 percent larger than Mexico’s and lacking a border with the United States.

Fourth, the U.S. government should carefully assess publicly funded collaboration with Mexican academics while the current political climate lasts. Perversely, U.S. support of promising Mexican researchers may paint a political target on their backs, as has been the case with other segments of civil society. (Writing this is depressing, as I have had the good fortune to work alongside inspiring Mexican academics that deserve far more support than they receive, but one must recognize reality.)

Finally, the episode represents a striking irony of present-day Mexico. This Mexican administration deeply desires to extend its control over most aspects of society, including journalism, academia, and the courts. But at the same time, it struggles with controlling essential state functions. Parts of the country remain practically outside the state’s day-to-day authority, almost 20 percent of income tax goes uncollected (its tax collected-to-GDP ratio ranks last in the OECD), the mail takes ages to arrive, and almost 99 percent of crime goes unresolved.

Worse still, this power grab will likely gut the Mexican research and development capacity it seeks to protect—politicizing research doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record of success, especially when paired with cuts to already underfunded research budgets. U.S. policymakers should take note.


Jeffrey Zinsmeister is a Global Americans Fellow specializing in rule of law, cybersecurity, data privacy, and organized crime, with over 20 years’ experience in law and international affairs. A former U.S. diplomat and Organization of American States official, he has worked extensively throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, with particular experience in Mexico and Brazil. He is also currently Of Counsel at the law firm Holcomb & Ward LLP, and co-author of the book Lost (and Found) in Translation: How to Find, Hire, and Work with the Right Professional Translator for Your Business, published in 2022. All opinions expressed are solely those of the author in his personal capacity.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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