ABOVE: The Supreme Court of Mexico

A third petition by Mexican prosecutors to convict 31 prominent researchers escalates the conflict between the Mexican government’s National Council of Science and Technology and the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum, an independent advisory board on which the accused scientists serve. Many of the country’s academics say the charges are unfounded and an act of political persecution, reports Times Higher Education. Judith Mariscal, a telecommunications researcher at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, tells the outlet that “Academic freedom is at stake.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, a federal judge twice denied arrest warrants brought forward by Mexico’s attorney general Alejandro Gertz Manero, citing insufficient evidence that the scientists illegally embezzled $12 million in government funds. This time around, charges of money laundering and organized crime were also brought forward. The scientists deny the accusations and state that all spending was legally assessed and approved by the current administration.

José Franco, the chief astronomy researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, tells the Journal that “The financial reports of the committee are public and available on its website. [The National Council of Science and Technology] nevertheless has chosen to pursue unfounded criminal charges, which speaks volumes of their intent.”

These serious accusations over use of research funding arose from disputes between María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, who was appointed director of Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology by President Andrés López Obrador, and the independent advisory panel, which was created by a 2002 law to serve as an impartial liaison between government officials and the research community. In her tenure, Álvarez-Buylla has encouraged research funding cuts, limited scholarships for overseas study, and criticized scientists’ work as “neoliberal science” that lacks meaningful impact, reports Times Higher Education

Irma Beatriz Rumbos Pellicer, a mathematician at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, tells Times Higher Education that the attempted arrests are a shock to local researchers, adding that “these ridiculous charges are meant to intimidate the academic community.”

Julia Tagüeña Parga, a physicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who served as head of the independent scientific advisory panel from 2019-2020, tells the Journal that “Those behind the accusations are doing a great disservice to the government, and to the country.” 

According to the Journal, President Lopez Obrador continues to defend his appointee and the National Council of Science and Technology, claiming evidence of blackmail and extravagant spending on luxuries as justification for the arrestsIf the scientists are convicted, they will be incarcerated for over 80 years at Altiplano, a maximum-security prison where drug lords and other notorious criminals are sent.