Monday, August 8, 2022

Yewtree, Savile, age of consent: The acute problems of proof which stale allegations entail also generates a demand that criminal courts should afford accusers therapy, by giving them ‘a voice’; this function is far removed from the courts’ traditional role, in which the state must prove defendants guilty beyond reasonable doubt

Yewtree is destroying the rule of law. By Barbara Hewson. spiked, May 8 2013.

With its emphasis on outcomes over process, the post-Savile witch-hunting of ageing celebs echoes the Soviet Union.

Yewtree is destroying the rule of law - spiked

I do not support the persecution of old men. The manipulation of the rule of law by the Savile Inquisition – otherwise known as Operation Yewtree – and its attendant zealots poses a far graver threat to society than anything Jimmy Savile ever did.

Now even a deputy speaker of the House of Commons is accused of male rape. This is an unfortunate consequence of the present mania for policing all aspects of personal life under the mantra of ‘child protection’.

We have been here before. England has a long history of do-gooders seeking to stamp out their version of sexual misconduct by force of the criminal law. In the eighteenth century, the quaintly named Society for the Reformation of Manners funded prosecutions of brothels, playwrights and gay men.

In the 1880s, the Social Purity movement repeatedly tried to increase the age of consent for girls from 13 to 16, despite parliament’s resistance. At that time, puberty for girls was at age 15 (now it is 10). The movement’s supporters portrayed women as fragile creatures needing protection from men’s animal impulses. Their efforts were finally rewarded after the maverick editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, WT Stead, set up his own secret commission to expose the sins of those in high places.

After procuring a 13-year-old girl, Stead ran a lurid exposé of the sex industry, memorably entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. His voyeuristic accounts under such titles as ‘Strapping girls down’ and ‘Why the cries of the victims are not heard’ electrified the Victorian public. The ensuing moral panic resulted in the age of consent being raised in 1885, as well as the criminalisation of gross indecency between men.

By contrast, the goings-on at the BBC in past decades are not a patch on what Stead exposed. Taking girls to one’s dressing room, bottom pinching and groping in cars hardly rank in the annals of depravity with flogging and rape in padded rooms. Yet the Victorian narrative of innocents despoiled by nasty men endures.

What is strikingly different today is how Britain’s law-enforcement apparatus has been infiltrated by moral crusaders, like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC). Both groups take part in Operation Yewtree, which looks into alleged offences both by and not by Savile.

These pressure groups have a vested interest in universalising the notion of abuse, making it almost as prevalent as original sin, but with the modern complication that it carries no possibility of redemption, only ‘survival’. The problem with this approach is that it makes abuse banal, and reduces the sympathy that we should feel for victims of really serious assaults (1).

But the most remarkable facet of the Savile scandal is how adult complainants are invited to act like children. Hence we have witnessed the strange spectacle of mature adults calling a children’s charity to complain about the distant past.

The NSPCC and the Metropolitan Police Force produced a joint report into Savile’s alleged offending in January 2013, called Giving Victims a Voice. It states: ‘The volume of the allegations that have been made, most of them dating back many years, has made this an unusual and complex inquiry. On the whole victims are not known to each other and taken together their accounts paint a compelling picture of widespread sexual abuse by a predatory sex offender. We are therefore referring to them as “victims” rather than “complainants” and are not presenting the evidence they have provided as unproven allegations [italics added].’ The report also states that ‘more work still needs to be done to ensure that the vulnerable feel that the scales of justice have been rebalanced’.

Note how the police and NSPCC assume the roles of judge and jury. What neither acknowledges is that this national trawl for historical victims was an open invitation to all manner of folk to reinterpret their experience of the past as one of victimisation (2).

The acute problems of proof which stale allegations entail also generates a demand that criminal courts should afford accusers therapy, by giving them ‘a voice’. This function is far removed from the courts’ traditional role, in which the state must prove defendants guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

What this infantilising of adult complainants ultimately requires is that we re-model our criminal-justice system on child-welfare courts. These courts (as I have written in spiked previously) have for some decades now applied a model of therapeutic jurisprudence, in which ‘the best interests of the child’ are paramount.

It is depressing, but true, that many reforms introduced in the name of child protection involve sweeping attacks on fundamental Anglo-American legal rights and safeguards, such as the presumption of innocence. This has ominous consequences for the rule of law, as US judge Arthur Christean pointed out: ‘Therapeutic jurisprudence marks a major and in many ways a truly radical shift in the historic function of courts of law and the basic purpose for which they have been established under our form of government. It also marks a fundamental shift in judges’ loyalty away from principles of due process and toward particular social policies. These policies are less concerned with judicial impartiality and fair hearings and more concerned with achieving particular results…’

The therapeutic model has certain analogies with a Soviet-style conception of justice, which emphasises outcomes over processes. It’s not difficult, then, to see why some celebrity elderly defendants, thrust into the glare of hostile publicity, including Dalek-style utterances from the police (‘offenders have nowhere to hide’), may conclude that resistance is useless. But the low-level misdemeanours with which Stuart Hall was charged are nothing like serious crime.

Touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old, or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt, are not remotely comparable to the horrors of the Ealing Vicarage assaults and gang rape, or the Fordingbridge gang rape and murders, both dating from 1986. Anyone suggesting otherwise has lost touch with reality.

Ordinarily, Hall’s misdemeanors would not be prosecuted, and certainly not decades after the event. What we have here is the manipulation of the British criminal-justice system to produce scapegoats on demand. It is a grotesque spectacle.

It’s interesting that two complainants who waived anonymity have told how they rebuffed Hall’s advances. That is, they dealt with it at the time. Re-framing such experiences, as one solicitor did, as a ‘horrible personal tragedy’ is ironic, given that tragoidia means the fall of an honourable, worthy and important protagonist.

It’s time to end this prurient charade, which has nothing to do with justice or the public interest. Adults and law-enforcement agencies must stop fetishising victimhood. Instead, we should focus on arming today’s youngsters with the savoir-faire and social skills to avoid drifting into compromising situations, and prosecute modern crime. As for law reform, now regrettably necessary, my recommendations are: remove complainant anonymity; introduce a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions; and reduce the age of consent to 13.

Barbara Hewson is a barrister at Hardwicke in London.



(1) Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust, by Frank Furedi, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 pp60-61;  ‘No Law in the Arena’, by Camille Paglia, included in Vamps & Tramps: New Essays, Penguin, 1995, pp24-25

(2) Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust, by Frank Furedi, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, p70

Previous research claims that public awareness of censorship will lead to backlash against the regime; but individuals become desensitized to censorship when the range of censored content expands beyond politically threatening topics

Yang, Tony, Normalization of Censorship: Evidence from China (November 2, 2021). SSRN:

Abstract: Previous research claims that public awareness of censorship will lead to backlash against the regime. However, surveys consistently find that Chinese citizens are apathetic toward or even supportive of government censorship. To explain this puzzle, I argue that citizens are subject to a process of normalization. Specifically, individuals become desensitized to censorship when the range of censored content expands beyond politically threatening topics like government criticism and collective action to other seemingly harmless non-political issues. Using a dataset of 15,872 censored articles on WeChat and two original survey experiments in China, I show that (1) a majority of censored articles are unrelated to politically threatening topics, and (2) respondents exposed to the censorship of non-political content display less backlash toward the regime and its censorship apparatus. My findings highlight how normalization of repressive policies contributes to authoritarian control.

Keywords: Censorship, China, Normalization, Desensitization, Backlash, Authoritarian Control

Female fruit flies copy the acceptance, but not the rejection, of a mate

Female fruit flies copy the acceptance, but not the rejection, of a mate. Sabine Nöbel, Magdalena Monier, Laura Fargeot, Guillaume Lespagnol, Etienne Danchin, Guillaume Isabel. Behavioral Ecology, arac071, Aug 8 2022,

Abstract: Acceptance and avoidance can be socially transmitted, especially in the case of mate choice. When a Drosophila melanogaster female observes a conspecific female (called demonstrator female) choosing to mate with one of two males, the former female (called observer female) can memorize and copy the latter female’s choice. Traditionally in mate-copying experiments, demonstrations provide two types of information to observer females, namely, the acceptance (positive) of one male and the rejection of the other male (negative). To disentangle the respective roles of positive and negative information in Drosophila mate copying, we performed experiments in which demonstrations provided only one type of information at a time. We found that positive information alone is sufficient to trigger mate copying. Observer females preferred males of phenotype A after watching a female mating with a male of phenotype A in the absence of any other male. Contrastingly, negative information alone (provided by a demonstrator female actively rejecting a male of phenotype B) did not affect future observer females’ mate choice. These results suggest that the informative part of demonstrations in Drosophila mate-copying experiments lies mainly, if not exclusively, in the positive information provided by the copulation with a given male. We discuss the reasons for such a result and suggest that Drosophila females learn to prefer the successful males, implying that the underlying learning mechanisms may be shared with those of appetitive memory in non-social associative learning.


Our goal was to disentangle the role of positive and negative information during the observation of binary mate-choice decisions in D. melanogaster in order to evaluate its ecological relevance. We found that females, that received positive information only or positive and negative information at the same time, learned and copied the choice of the demonstrator females, as in previous studies (Dagaeff et al. 2016Danchin et al. 2018Nöbel et al. 2018Monier et al. 2019). We further found no significant difference in the learning capacities of females of these two treatments. In contrast, females receiving only negative information did not significantly avoid the color they saw being rejected, which differs from a previous study in fish (Witte and Ueding 2003). Thus, positive information appears sufficient to elicit mate copying after one demonstration in fruit flies.

The absence of mate copying in the rejection treatment suggests that one demonstration containing rejection(s) of a male is not sufficient to elicit avoidance behavior in the observer females. This may be because a female can reject a male for reasons that are independent from its quality, like the female being non-receptive (Connolly and Cook 1973Neckameyer 1998), as this is the case in our study. Alternatively, it may be that observer females were less interested in negative demonstrations as they did not involve copulation, in which case the negative result would simply result from a lack of interest in the demonstrations. Or it could be that the solitary male and the rejected male were evaluated in the same way, and thus, no preference was developed.

A recent study of aversive olfactory memory in Drosophila showed that an initially neutral stimulus can become attractive to fruit flies under some circumstances—the “safety memory” (Jacob and Waddell 2020). Briefly, after a multiple spaced training with sequences of conditioned stimuli (CS) simultaneously with an aversive cue (CS+) followed by another CS without reinforcement (CS−), Jacob and Waddell conclude that the individuals display both a CS + avoidance and an approach movement towards the CS- when later given the choice between the CS + and CS− odors. Thus, in our design, a sequence of several rejections (showing first a male of phenotype A rejected by a female and then a single male of another phenotype B, repeated several times) might elicit aversive learning for phenotype A leading to a choice for the male phenotype B. Interestingly, in the fruit fly larva, appetitive but not aversive olfactory stimuli support associative gustatory learning (Hendel et al. 2005). Opposite to what we observe in fruit fly females, female sailfin mollies (Poecillia latipinna) copy the rejection of a male (Witte and Ueding 2003). However, the setup used in that study was quite different from ours, as the rejection demonstration consisted of a sequence of four 12-min video of four different females escaping from a courting male, so that the rejection cue seemed much stronger than in the present study that only involved a single demonstrator female. Similarly, in humans, women, but not men, decrease their interest for a relationship to a demonstrator after watching a speed-dating video in which the demonstrator and a potential partner showed mutual lack of interest (Place et al. 2010). This can indicate that beyond the effect of the experimental conditions, different species use different social cues for mate copying. However, the motivations to reject a partner are way less studied than for building specific mating preferences.

A last alternative can be that in nature newly emerged females do not see older females choosing between only two males, but rather see females choosing among many males to copulate with one of them. The fact that the former chooses that specific male is informative in itself but the fact that she rejected all other potential male does not reveal much information about all the non-selected males. This purely statistical fact may explain the absence of an effect of seeing only a rejection.

Finally, our results suggest that in the classical Drosophila mate-copying design, the rejected male shown in the demonstration may not constitute the prominent cue triggering learning in the observer female. Moreover, the presentation of a male of the opposite color together with the copulating pair in the classical demonstration might even constitute a distractive stimulus, as indirectly suggested by Germain et al. (2016 experiment 3). In nature, females may observe copulations longer than rejection as copulations likely last for more than 30 min (Markow 2000), while rejections are brief and thus far less prominent (Gromko and Markow 1993). It is thus possible that our result is explained by the fact that D. melanogaster females evolved an ability to gather social information from the most easily detectable and reliable social cues. Alternatively, females might pay attention to rejection events too but might have difficulties in interpreting them or distinguishing them from other neutral information, such as solitary males.

Our finding that the acceptance of a male by the demonstrator female is the most relevant cue to elicit full mate copying by the observer female suggests that it involves networks of appetitive learning neurons and mechanisms rather than the aversive pathway. Several authors suggested that social learning in many contexts can have an associative explanation (e.g., Munger et al. 2010 ; Avarguès-Weber et al. 2015Heyes and Pearce 2015Leadbeater and Dawson 2017). For mate copying, this has yet to be proven. At the moment, asocial learning, like olfactory associative direct learning, is way better understood. Here the pairing between a conditioned stimulus (CS; for instance, odor A) and an appetitive US (sucrose) leads flies to prefer odor A over B even in the absence of any reward (Tempel et al. 1983) through the association of odor A to the reward (Schultz et al. 1997). In our social learning paradigm, we can speculate that the relevant cues eliciting learning are the color of the copulating males in association with the successful mating. Hence, the copulating pair would mediate the appetitive US, while male color would constitute the CS (Avarguès-Weber et al. 2015). Under this hypothesis, it would be interesting to study whether mate-copying mechanisms resemble those of visual, appetitive, associative learning, given that its neural bases are now well-understood (Vogt et al. 20142016).

More generally, understanding how social learning works can only help sharpening our view on the evolution of the different types of learning, opening the way to new theories about the evolution of behavior, cognition, and culture in invertebrates.

The population is widely exposed to online false news; however, echo chambers are minimal, and the most avid readers of false news content regularly expose themselves to mainstream news sources

Zhang, Jiding and Moon, Ken and Veeraraghavan, Senthil K., Does Fake News Create Echo Chambers? (June 23, 2022). SSRN:

Abstract: Platforms have come under criticism from regulatory agencies, policymakers, and media scholars for the unfettered spread of fake news online. A key concern is that, as fake news becomes prevalent, individuals may fall into online "echo chambers" that predominantly expose them only to fake news. Using a dataset reporting 30,995 individual households’ online activity, we empirically examine the reach of false news content and whether echo chambers exist. We find that the population is widely exposed to online false news. However, echo chambers are minimal, and the most avid readers of false news content regularly expose themselves to mainstream news sources. Using a natural experiment occurring on a major social media platform, we find that being exposed to false news content causes households to increase their exposure to countervailing mainstream news (by 9.1% in the experiment). Hence, a naive intervention that reduces the supply of false news sources on a platform also reduces the overall consumption of news. Based on a structural model of household decisions whether to diversify their online news sources, we prescribe how platforms should moderate false news content. We find that platforms can further reduce the size of echo chambers (by 12-18%) by focusing their content moderation efforts on the households that are most susceptible to consuming predominantly false news, instead of the households most deeply exposed to false news.

Keywords: Digital operations, Echo chambers, Marketplace for news, Natural experiment, Platforms, Structural estimation

Check also other literature with references: Politically partisan left-right online news echo chambers are real, but only a minority of approximately 5% of internet news users inhabit them; the continued popularity of mainstream outlets often preclude the formation of large partisan echo chambers

Nearshoring in Mexico: In 2018-2021 the proportion of manufactured goods imported into the US from Mexico barely changed; Asian countries but China increased their share of US manufactured goods imports from 12.6 pct to 17.4 pct

Why Mexico is missing its chance to profit from US-China decoupling. Michael Stott and Christine Murray. Financial Times Jul 3 2022.

A predicted economic boom from American companies relocating closer to home has not arrived. Many blame the president

Michael Stott and Christine Murray in Mexico City. July  3 2022

When Donald Trump started a trade war with China in 2018, Mexico looked well placed to benefit.

For American manufacturers scrambling to dodge newly imposed tariffs on Chinese imports, the attraction of moving production to their southern neighbour seemed clear. Mexico offered a skilled workforce, good road and rail connections, an established export industry and privileged trade access.

The stage appeared to be set for a boom in “nearshoring” — relocating production closer to home. A bonanza beckoned, perhaps rivalling the one Mexico enjoyed in 1994 after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

It didn’t happen. Between 2018 and 2021 the proportion of manufactured goods imported into the US from Mexico barely changed according to data compiled by Kearney, the consultancy. Instead the rewards of the China boycott were reaped by low-cost Asian competitors including Vietnam and Taiwan. Asian countries other than China increased their share of US manufactured goods imports from 12.6 per cent to 17.4 per cent over the period.

The rapid growth in total US goods imports from Mexico that might have been expected had nearshoring taken off was also missing. It rose by just 11.8 per cent over three years to $384.6bn in 2021, according to the US Census Bureau — after allowing for inflation the total increase was just under 4 per cent.

“Most of the gains have gone to Asean, India and Korea,” said UBS in a recent report examining nearshoring in Mexico. “At least for now, the US import penetration data does not support the view that Mexico has been a net beneficiary of nearshoring.”

There have been some signs of increased activity. Mexico attracted $34.9bn in foreign direct investment in the year to the end of March, up from $26.1bn a year earlier — although that figure includes large one-off transactions outside the manufacturing sector. Industrial parks in the north of the country are full and some international companies have relocated there. But despite this, Mexico’s overall economic growth over the past three years has been among the weakest of Latin America’s larger economies.

“This should be the golden era for investment in Mexico,” says Mauricio Claver-Carone, president of the Inter-American Development Bank and a big supporter of nearshoring. Calculations by the IDB suggest Mexico has the potential to deliver almost half of the $78bn in additional annual exports from nearshoring that the bank estimates Latin America could generate in the medium term.

Claver-Carone says there is plenty of interest from executives in moving to Mexico: “Not a day goes by without a major company calling me up and saying, ‘Hey, we want to invest [in moving production], can you help us in Mexico?’”

Yet the interest has not yet translated into measurable economic gains, says Ernesto Revilla, head of Latin America economics at Citi and a former Mexican finance ministry official. While nearshoring has become a buzzword in discussions about the future of the Mexican economy, he says, “nobody knows how to continue the conversation”.

The ‘moral economy’

Much of the blame for Mexico’s lacklustre economic performance has fallen on the shoulders of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Business leaders, diplomats and investors say he has been hostile to some foreign companies and complain that his capricious decision-making and authoritarian tendencies are scaring off investment.

López Obrador came to power in 2018 on a leftist, nationalist platform. He dreams of restoring Mexico’s economy to the oil-powered, state-dominated days of the 1970s. His quixotic pledge of a “fourth transformation” of the country — a change he puts on a par with Mexico gaining independence from Spain — promises to eliminate corruption and speed up growth. He wants to create a “moral economy” that puts the poor first, but his regular naming and shaming of multinationals at daily news conferences does little to instil confidence in foreign businesses contemplating forays into Mexico.

Despite his heavy criticism of low growth under previous “neoliberal” governments, in the first three full years of his own administration Mexico’s gross domestic product contracted overall. It is the only major Latin American economy whose output will still be below pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year, according to estimates from JPMorgan.

Mexico’s poor performance is “a direct consequence of . . . Amlo-nomics, which is extremely tight macroeconomic policy coupled with very bad microeconomics,” says Citi’s Revilla, using the acronym that has become the president’s nickname. “The result is not surprising: it’s very low growth.”

Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister who now works as a consultant, agrees. “We had everything to gain from the global geopolitical situation,” he says. “But it’s all been squandered because of López Obrador’s anti-private sector policies.”

The president’s obsession with “republican austerity” — he flies economy class and took a large personal pay cut — has meant salary reductions for top officials. This in turn has led to a brain drain, budget cuts at government agencies and sharply reduced spending on infrastructure.

Mexico has the lowest public investment among OECD countries, spending just 1.3 per cent of GDP in 2019, the first year of López Obrador’s government. Much of what remains is channelled into a handful of grandiose projects championed by the president. The most prominent is a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco, whose cost has spiralled to between $16bn and $18bn, according to Bloomberg.

López Obrador has repeatedly attacked Mexico’s autonomous regulatory agencies, criticising their decisions, cutting budgets and suggesting that they collude corruptly with business.

“Mexico has a big comparative advantage in farming but there are problems in [agricultural health agency] Senasica,” says Luis de la Calle, an economist who runs a consulting firm in Mexico City. “We are a big exporter of fish and seafood, but the government took away funding from [fishing council] Conapesca. We are a big exporter of medical equipment but they cut money for the certifying body Cofepris. It’s madness.”

[Photo w/text: López Obrador dreams of restoring Mexico’s economy to the oil-powered, state-dominated days of the 1970s]

One of López Obrador’s first decisions as president was to shut the government agency ProMéxico, which worked to promote investment in Mexico and had 51 offices overseas. The president said they were “supposedly dedicated to promoting the country, which is ridiculous because there are no ProGermany, ProFrance or ProCanada offices”. In fact, most countries have government agencies to promote foreign investment.

“Deep down,” de la Calle says, “López Obrador believes that economic success is not possible by itself. It is always the result of luck or corruption.”

Foreign targets

Despite the downbeat mood, the government and some experts insist Mexico could still take advantage of supply chain disruptions caused by Covid-19, higher shipping costs and Ukraine invasion-related fuel price surges that make the economics of moving production to Mexico more compelling.

Tatiana Clouthier, Mexico’s economy minister, argues the country is “doing well for investment” in nearshoring. “It always could be [more] . . . There always could be better circumstances for everything,” she says.

For many years, Clouthier says, Mexico has suffered from “an imbalance, where the thinking was about how to strengthen investment and the social part was ignored”. Now, she says, “the idea is to try to compensate for that”. In practice, the shift in policy has brought decisions that upset foreign companies. Those from the US, Mexico’s biggest foreign investor, have been particularly exposed.

Last month the government forced Vulcan Materials, the biggest American producer of aggregates used in US construction, to halt quarrying in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, with López Obrador warning that an “ecological catastrophe” was taking place. Vulcan, which has operated in the area for 30 years, has described the shutdown as “arbitrary and illegal” and has sought arbitration under the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the successor trade pact to Nafta.

The dispute prompted a letter from a group of US senators last month to President Joe Biden, calling on him to take immediate action to stop Mexico’s “aggression towards US companies”. “If these violations are allowed to continue, they will . . . encourage businesses to seek more predictable and suitable markets elsewhere,” the letter said.

Economy minister Tatiana Clouthier argues the country is ‘doing well for investment’ in nearshoring © Lujan Agusti/Bloomberg

In 2020, Constellation Brands, a large American drinks company that makes Corona beer for the US market, cancelled a $1.4bn factory being built in the northern city of Mexicali after the government revoked its construction permit. The company has since agreed to build a facility in Veracruz but work has yet to start.

Companies from Spain, the former colonial power, have also been targeted. That Spain is Mexico’s second biggest foreign investor after the US cuts little ice. Spanish companies “abused our country and our peoples”, López Obrador told a news conference in February. In a reference to the post-Nafta decades, he added: “During the neoliberal period, Spanish companies supported by the political establishment saw us as a land to be conquered.”

A particular target of the president’s ire has been Iberdrola, the Spanish power company that owns a string of electricity generating plants in Mexico. He has accused it of corrupt deals, something Iberdrola denies. Iberdrola had announced plans to invest $5bn in renewable energy projects in Mexico during López Obrador’s term but has now abandoned almost all of its Mexican investment and is fighting the government in the courts.

The attacks on Iberdrola are part of López Obrador’s crusade to restore the state to pride of place in Mexico’s energy sector. Previous governments had chipped away at the state’s historic monopoly over energy, allowing the private sector to operate electricity generating plants serving industrial customers in the wake of Nafta.

A landmark 2013 constitutional reform opened up the oil, gas and electricity sectors more widely but, since he took power, López Obrador has opposed these reforms and launched a wave of initiatives to roll them back. These include a law changing Mexico’s electricity grid rules to favour the fossil fuel-heavy state power generator, CFE, at the expense of private companies.

As foreign power generators fight the government in the courts, companies that need power for new plants in Mexico are struggling to secure adequate supplies. Worse, the CFE’s reliance on CO₂-emitting oil and gas plants rules it out for multinationals which are committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions targets.

Alberto de la Fuente, president of Mexico’s Executive Council of Global Companies, which represents 57 multinationals accounting for 40 per cent of foreign direct investment, has warned that if Mexico cannot fulfil its clean energy goals, companies “will simply leave”.

Behind closed doors

While foreign companies have borne the brunt of López Obrador’s attacks, the handful of big Mexican businesses that control large parts of the economy have been less affected.

When the president wanted to tackle inflation, his government invited Mexican business leaders for private conversations to agree an informal pact limiting price rises on basic groceries. “It wasn’t a big sacrifice,” noted the owner of one large Mexican group.

Mexico’s oligarchs have reinforced the impression of a cosy relationship with the president by making supportive statements in public and confining any criticism to conversations behind closed doors. “All the Mexican business leaders complain about Amlo,” says the chief executive of one big foreign company. “But when they meet him, they all appear afterwards in public saying how wonderful he is . . It’s a circle of collusion.”

López Obrador has also made life difficult for international businesses in Mexico in less direct ways. Shortly after taking office, he cancelled a $13bn new airport for Mexico City that would have replaced the congested Benito Juárez facility, claiming the partly-executed project was too extravagant, even though cancelling it cost billions.

“The airport decision was 100 per cent political,” says one leading Mexican businessman. “It was the worst economic decision this government has made.”

Instead, López Obrador ordered the army to remodel a nearby military air base and turn it into an additional airport for the capital. The new Felipe Ángeles facility opened in March at a cost estimated by former finance minister Carlos Urzúa of $5.7bn. Most airlines have shunned it because of its poor road and rail connections (the government is working on new transport links). Its only regular international flight goes to Venezuela, a nation under US sanctions. Flights to Cuba, another nation under US sanctions, are due to start in July.

The new airport is only 45km from Benito Juárez, a proximity that has forced a controversial redesign of Mexico City’s airspace. This triggered what the International Air Transport Association called a “very worrying” increase in alerts over flights at risk of collision. Mexico’s airlines are currently unable to expand flights to the US because the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded its air safety rating last year.

“We are losing out on the potential we have as a country and as a city” because of the airport situation, says the chief executive of the foreign firm. “There may come a moment where you have to fly to Monterrey to take a plane to Barcelona.”

Despite this, Omar Troncoso, a nearshoring expert at Kearney in Mexico, sees some reason for optimism in the recent geopolitical shifts. He said that as recently as last year, “Mexico was still more expensive than many [Asian] low-cost countries” when total costs of getting the product to the customer were factored in. Then “we had a massive disruption in [the] supply chain and . . . the price of a container being brought from China to the US skyrocketed . . . It [is] now cheaper to produce in Mexico,” he says.

Troncoso believes that the nearshoring aimed at supplying the US market currently under way will take another two or three years to show up in the data. “If you . . . look for a space in some of the border cities . . . the real estate agents will tell you that you’re going to have to wait until 2025 — everything . . . is already sold out.”

Sergio Argüelles González, head of Mexico’s industrial parks association, says 2021 was a bumper year with “spectacular demand” and predicts this will continue if there are sufficient power supplies.

“In spite of Amlo, something is happening,” says Citi’s Revilla. “The [momentum] for nearshoring is big and hopefully will outlast Amlo and help Mexico in the medium term.” De la Calle, the consultant, voices a similar view: “Nearshoring is happening,” he says. “But . . . if we did things properly, it could be three times more than it is now . . . The opportunity cost of López Obrador is very big.”