Safeguarding Liberty


Former Mexican Supreme Court Justice Alberto Vásquez del Mercado. Graphic Art: Pulse News Mexico


Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) is fulfilling its historical responsibility to safeguard the constitutional order violated by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) Plan B, which would make free elections impossible. Although other resolutions may still be to come, Mexican democracy is resisting the current administration’s attempts to weaken it.

But no democracy can survive without freedom of expression. And in Mexico, that freedom is in question as a result of the president’s daily harassment of his critics, harassment that violates numerous constitutional rights. Sooner or later, the aggrieved will be able to defend themselves in court. Some have already done so. And it is foreseeable that these trials could end up in the SCJN.

Meanwhile, it is worthwhile for Mexico’s Supreme Court justices to remember the conflict between powers that arose around a violation of freedom of expression at the beginning of 1931. At that time, Mexico’s Supreme Court was submissive to the executive, but there was a sole justice, Alberto Vásquez del Mercado, who preferred resignation to ignominy.

Those were the times of the “Jefe Máximo” (“Maximum Chief”) Plutarco Elías Calles and President Pascual Ortiz Rubio. “The president lives here,” people would say, pointing to Chapultepec Castle, “but the person in charge lives across the street.”

Luis Cabrera, a veteran of the Mexican Revolution, once gave a conference on “The Balance of the Revolution” at the National Library. His verdict was truthful and painful: “The Revolution has not solved any of the country’s political problems.” The official press and the senior staff of the official party launched a campaign against him. Ortiz Rubio called him “an ominous bird at the service of reactionaries … sold to the enemies … scum of the revolution.”

Finally, at the beginning of May 1931, Colonel Carlos Riva Palacio, Mexico’s then-secretary of the interior, gave the order to arrest Cabrera and deport him to Guatemala. Two legal injunctions promoted in federal courts to defend Cabrera were useless.

On the 12th of that month, the issue reached the plenary session of Mexico’s Supreme Court. Vásquez del Mercado — one of the youngest ministers in the history of Mexico, appointed in 1928 at the age of just 35 — proposed calling for the immediate separation of the authorities responsible for disobeying the mandates of federal justice (which could be a range of persons, from the president to the chief of the Federal District Police). No one in the court seconded him (although, in private, his colleagues applauded him).

The next day, Vásquez del Mercado sent his resignation to Ortiz Rubio: “The recent apprehension and expulsion from the country of Mr. Luis Cabrera, carried out by authorities dependent on the executive power, disobeying, when executing the last act, the express order of the federal judicial authorities, has brought me to the full conviction, due to the frequency of similar or identical facts, of the impossibility of getting the current administration to stop committing violations of the rights and guarantees ensured to people by the Constitution of the republic. These acts break the balance of powers that the (magna carta) charter itself establishes and nullify the most important and transcendental function of the judiciary, which is to support and protect individuals against abuses of power.”

Ortiz Rubio passed Vásquez del Mercado’s resignation on to the Mexican Congress, reproaching the justice for his attitude: “The position in which the judge places himself is comfortable when, under the pretext of supposed transgressions of the law, he resigns from his position to acquire ephemeral popularity in the sector of the opposition public opinion of the constituted government…” (Curiously, in September 1932, Ortiz Rubio himself would resign his post.)

The Mexican Congress accepted Vásquez del Mercado’s resignation in equivocal terms and showered him with insults, calling him an “enemy, traitor, unworthy.”

From Guatemala, Cabrera wrote to his defender: “Your resignation … is the moral liberation of a man who prefers the modesty of private life to the costly responsibility of a magistracy in which he cannot fulfill the mission entrusted to him … You believe in a justice system that is tempered by prudence, rather than one that is defined by constant and perpetual willpower … You have fulfilled your duty.”

I met Alberto Vásquez del Mercado in October 1970. He was the first of the “Seven Wise Men” that I interviewed to write my book “Cultural Leaders in the Mexican Revolution.”

He was the only Mexican Supreme Court justice ever to have resigned his position for reasons of ethical coherence.

Now, we are living once again under the shadow of a caudillo. Let us hope that, when the time comes, the Supreme Court will symbolically vindicate Vásquez del Mercado and protect freedom of expression against abuses of power.

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