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Mexico Referendum Puts Vague Question To Voters

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

Today was referendum day in Mexico as voters cast their ballots to answer a somewhat vague and technical legal question. Roughly translated, it asked for a yes-or-no answer on whether appropriate action should be carried out to clarify past decisions taken by the country's former leaders. What that means is not entirely clear and the subject of some confusion.

Reporter James Fredrick joins us now from Mexico City. Hi, James.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Hi.

SNELL: Can you explain the confusion about the question that was put to Mexican voters today?

FREDRICK: Well, when I asked voters at polling places this morning what they were voting over, all of them said to me, we're voting about whether or not to go after and possibly prosecute ex-presidents. And that's because President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been talking about this issue for a long time. You know, advertising billboards I see in the streets say the same kind of thing, that if you vote yes, that means former presidents will go on trial.

But what actually happened is that the Supreme Court must review referendums before they go to a vote. And the Supreme Court ruled that it was not legal to ask about specific ex-presidents, about whether they should be tried. Basically, the issue is if someone committed a crime, they need to be held accountable. Citizens can't decide yes or no. And so they changed the wording. And as you mentioned, the wording is now very vague.

The voters I spoke to said, oh, yeah, yeah, that's just legal talk. But the result of that is that people aren't sure exactly what - if yes is the result of this vote, what it means. But what it probably means is that President Lopez Obrador has lots of leeway to do what he wants to do with this.

SNELL: That has to be very confusing for people when they're deciding whether or not to show up for this referendum. And I know you've been talking to voters there. What have they been telling you?

FREDRICK: So this morning, I did talk to several voters after they had voted. And the main thing I got out of them is that, well, first of all, they really thought they were voting over whether or not to go after ex-presidents. Part of that is about bad information and I think some disingenuous campaigns around this. But I think the other key part of it is that everyone I spoke to was so passionate about wanting to see justice and accountability.

So here's one voter I spoke to. This is Cecilia Montes, a 52-year-old full-time mom.

CECILIA MONTES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says, what we Mexicans want is for guilty parties to pay for the bad they've done. She talked about crime and violence, public education, public health, the minimum wage. I mean, she had all of these things that she was upset about. She got really emotional and was on the verge of tears talking about how much she wants politicians held responsible. So for me, it was really sad knowing that, legally speaking, her vote, which she cared so much about, may actually not mean anything.

SNELL: That sounds like some very passionate feelings going into this vote. But I understand there's also a question about whether the actual referendum itself will even be valid. Why is that?

FREDRICK: Because 40% of registered voters need to cast a ballot for this to count. That's about 39 million people. And observers I've talked to said that is unlikely. People voted in midterms just a month ago, so to have people turn out again in large numbers is unlikely. But we still need to wait and see.

SNELL: So with that in mind, do we know what will happen if the referendum passes?

FREDRICK: We don't. The legal scholars that I spoke to said that the vagueness of the question means President Lopez Obrador will have tons of leeway to decide what to do if the result is a yes. If it's no, then nothing is going to happen. But I did actually speak to some human rights activists. Here's one. This is Graciela Rodriguez from the Mexican Commission for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. She thinks something big actually could come of this.

GRACIELA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says that this referendum actually could open up the possibility for the creation of a truth commission. And that would target Mexico's drug war, the hundreds of thousands who have been killed, the 90,000 who have disappeared. Both organized crime and government forces are responsible for major crimes committed during the drug war, and she says this vague language actually would lend itself perfectly to the creation of a truth commission. So there is a possibility that Mexicans could get this sense of justice they want, but again, the vagueness means it all comes down to the president and what he decides to do.

SNELL: So a lot at stake for Mexico's justice system. That's reporter James Frederick in Mexico City. James, thank you very much.

FREDRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.