Three ways Mexico’s new president could transform Central America

Mexico’s northern border with the United States has received a lot of attention, but its southern border—and, more broadly, its relations with Central American countries—deserves attention, too. For many years, the thinking went that Mexico was, in a way, Central America’s big brother. Dare we ask if the ascent of Claudia Sheinbaum, who on Sunday was elected as Mexico’s next president, will make her country Central America’s big sister? While she will likely focus mostly on domestic issues—including tackling the rising levels of violence and insecurity in the country—she also has an opportunity to positively reset ties with Mexico’s southern neighbors. Three areas to watch in this respect are climate change, nearshoring, and migration.

A former mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum has a strong foundation in addressing urban challenges, governance, and social policies. Like her predecessor, outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Sheinbaum will likely coordinate her policies under a narrative of addressing social injustice and advocating for Mexico’s most vulnerable. But unlike her predecessor, Sheinbaum is an environmental engineer and climate scientist by training. She appears poised to place environmental issues, including climate-change mitigation and adaptation, high among her social justice concerns. This would likely include seeking to advance issues ranging from sustainable agriculture to renewable energy.

At first glance, this may sound odd. Mexico is a major oil producer—the second largest exporter in Latin America after Brazil—and Sheinbaum has all but guaranteed that she will continue funding the state-owned oil company PEMEX, which suffers from a range of inefficiencies and carries debt of more than one hundred billion dollars. However, her scientific background and previous initiatives indicate a potential for balancing economic development with environmental sustainability. For example, during her time as mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum spearheaded the installment of solar power panels on top of a major market. Furthermore, she campaigned for president on a promise to address, early on in her administration, the water issues affecting Mexico City. Already during her first speech since the election, and probably in an effort to differentiate herself from López Obrador, Sheinbaum spoke about an upcoming renewable energy program for Mexico. Calibrating this balance will be crucial, as will working with regional partners. After all, Mexico and its neighbor Guatemala, for instance, face similar challenges of environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change, from flooding to droughts and a lack of access to water.

Another way in which Sheinbaum could partner with her Central American neighbors is by working together to seize nearshoring opportunities. Specifically, she and her regional counterparts could promote a mechanism whereby Central American economies would be able to join the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Nearshoring, or bringing international supply chains and production closer to the US market, can provide significant economic benefits, creating jobs and fostering economic stability in Mexico and throughout Central America. Promoting economic integration through the USMCA could provide a structured framework for this cooperation. The idea has been floated for a couple of years now, first by Costa Rica in 2022. This move would enhance the competitive edge of Central American economies, which in many ways are too small to make a difference on their own but together could create economies of scale. Bringing other Central American countries into the USMCA would allow these nations to benefit from the same trade advantages enjoyed by Mexico. It could also reduce many of the economic pressures that drive migration, namely a lack of jobs and insufficient wages.

Furthermore, Sheinbaum’s administration could adopt a more humanitarian approach to migration, focusing on protecting migrant rights and providing humanitarian assistance. While López Obrador touted his tree-planting “Sembrando Vida” program, Sheinbaum could take the programs a step further. This approach aligns with her broader progressive values—she is a self-described humanistand can enhance Mexico’s role as a regional leader in addressing the migration crisis. During the campaign, Sheinbaum repeatedly mentioned increased investments in social and youth programs in Central America, which, if designed holistically and sustainably, could effectively curb migration from Mexico’s neighbors. This is particularly important now, as US President Joe Biden prepares to roll out an executive order that would allow the United States to temporarily close its southern border if a threshold of encounters with migrants at the border is reached—reportedly, an average of five thousand crossings in a week or 2,500 in a day.

Regional security is another area in which Sheinbaum could make a big difference. Almost three dozen candidates were assassinated during the current electoral campaign, and record-breaking violence in the country is resulting in more than thirty thousand homicides each year. Improved and increased intelligence-sharing between Mexico and Central American countries can help combat organized crime and violence, which are significant push factors for migration. This is also an area in which the United States and Mexico may look to double down on their cooperation. Sheinbaum has pledged to address the rampant impunity in Mexico—less than five percent of criminal investigations are solved and many crimes go unreported. While Sheinbaum is unlikely to approach the security issue in the severe manner of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, she has recognized the urgency of this issue for the livelihood of millions of Mexicans.

Sheinbaum’s presidency could bring about significant positive change in Mexico and its relations with Central America. Her administration’s policies on energy and environmental sustainability, economic integration, and migration will have an important impact on the future of the region. The first female president of Mexico has the opportunity to redefine her country’s role in Central America, address the root causes of migration, and promote a more stable and prosperous region. In this new chapter for Mexico and the region, the Aztec nation could very well be a strong and stable partner for Central American nations.

María Fernanda Bozmoski is deputy director, operations and finance at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, where she leads the center’s work on Mexico and Central America.

Further reading

Image: April 15, 2024, Mexico City, Mexico: The presidential candidate for the Juntos Hagamos Historia coalition, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo speaks during the Meeting with Companies and Entrepreneurs at the Hilton Hotel.