How AMLO rose to power in Mexico’s skewed system

. Jul 02, 2020
AMLO Mexico City May 24 2018 Andrés Manuel López Obrador, presidential candidate of "Together we make history" coalition of political parties speaks in a podium to his supporters in a meeting.

Over the past week, Mexico has recorded an average of 672 coronavirus deaths per day — trailing only Brazil and the U.S., despite testing fewer patients than most countries. With over 227,000 total confirmed cases and one of the world’s highest coronavirus fatality rates, critics in the foreign and domestic press have equated the attitudes of left-leaning President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, to those of his denialist populist counterparts Donald Trump in the U.S. and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro — but just how fair is that comparison?

What is actually happening in Latin America’s second-largest economy and what lessons Brazil can draw from it? In this three-part series, we break down the current state of Mexico, beginning with AMLO’s rise to power in 2018.

</p> <h2>Introducing AMLO</h2> <p>Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, AMLO came to power through the <a href="">collapse of Mexico’s existing political system</a> in the wake of rising crime and corruption scandals that devastated the country’s traditional parties. His own political outfit, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) went from being AMLO&#8217;s <a href="">personal electoral vehicle</a> to the largest party in the country overnight in 2018, gaining solid majorities in Mexico’s Senate and Congress.&nbsp;</p> <p>AMLO himself emerged victorious with 53 percent of the presidential vote,&nbsp;30 points higher than his closest contender and winning 31 out of Mexico’s 32 states. In fact, Morena’s victory in the 2018 elections may well have been the largest electoral victory in history for a left-leaning political party.</p> <h2>Mexico’s political system</h2> <p>For 70 years, between 1921 and 2000, Mexico was run by the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), in what the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once described as “the perfect dictatorship.” Following two decades of economic and social crisis, as well as electoral reform, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) won the 2000 elections, bringing an end to the PRI’s electoral dominance, even if it remained the largest party in the country.</p> <p>The last left-wing Mexican president, before AMLO, was<a href=""> Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio</a>, who ruled the country between 1934 and 1940. Mr. Cárdenas is remembered as one of the country’s greatest leaders, largely for his radical land reform, popular education programs, and nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry. In fact, AMLO’s politics stem from this left-wing nationalist tradition within the hegemony of the PRI, intimately tied to the popular mobilization of the peasant class: key to Mexico’s War of Independence in 1821, the War of Reform and Expulsion of the French (1861-1867), and, of course, the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920.</p> <p>Rather than being Mexico&#8217;s answer to other prominent <a href="">left-leaning leaders around Latin America</a> — such as Hugo Chávez or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva — AMLO hails from a uniquely Mexican political tradition, which has been apparent throughout his 40 years in public life.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="Puebla/Mexico. Man supports AMLO during the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Luis Raul Torres/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-43744" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Puebla/Mexico. Man supports AMLO during the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Luis Raul Torres/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>In the wake of the 1988 general elections, Lázaro Cárdenas&#8217; son Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano helped to found the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-wing offshoot of the PRI, which had been perceived to have embraced neoliberal economics. An earlier guise of the party contested the vote in 1988, claiming to represent the authentic spirit of the Mexican Revolution, losing to the PRI in what is widely regarded as a fixed election.</p> <p>AMLO joined the PRD, running for governor in his home state of Tabasco and then becoming the party president in 1996. In 2000, he was elected mayor of the Federal District of Mexico City, making his national political bones as an immensely popular mayor known for his social programs. He left office in 2006 with an 84-percent approval rating having &#8220;kept 80 percent of his promises,&#8221; according to one newspaper, Reforma.</p> <p>In 2006, AMLO came within a hair&#8217;s breadth of winning a contested election as the PRD candidate, losing out to the PAN and Felipe Calderón, by a margin of just 0.58 percent. The result of the vote was <a href="">contested</a>, triggering a mass protest movement that severely damaged the credibility of the incoming president.</p> <h2>The War on Drugs</h2> <p>Looking to shore up his political credibility and increase his clout with the U.S. President George W. Bush, Mr. Calderón launched Mexico’s War on Drugs at the beginning of 2007, unleashing over 13 years of carnage on the nation.</p> <p>It is impossible to overstate just how deadly Mexico’s War on Drugs has been: the death toll is anywhere between the official total of around 115,000 and other more accurate estimates north of 260,000. Around 60,000 to 80,000 people have been disappeared and innumerable lives have been destroyed by a conflict resembling a civil war rather than clashes between drug cartels and the government. There are hundreds of mass graves littered across the country — rape, public decapitations, mass murder, and videos of grisly torture posted online are all common. Those who report on the unfolding atrocities are often murdered or forced into hiding. Since the year 2000, over <a href="">140 journalists</a> have been murdered.</p> <p>Mexico’s murder rate was actually declining before Mr. Calderón sent the military to fight the ‘traffickers.’ Human rights abuses by the Mexican state are common, such as the massacres of Tlatlaya, Apatzingán, Tanhuato, and Ayotzinapa, to name but a few.</p> <p>Mexico’s drug trade has a long history, but traditionally it had been managed by the PRI, who let traffickers move their product across the border in exchange for funds and dictated who ruled the roost. Mexico’s cartels originally entered the cocaine game as a transit hub to the U.S. for Colombia’s mega-cartels. In recent decades, however, Mexico’s drugs gangs moved into the methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl trade to supplement the cocaine business. And when Colombia’s cartels were destroyed in the 1990s, the power of their Mexican partners ballooned, and their profits and resources expanded.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="amlo Mexican armed forces during an anti-drug operation. Photo: Roberto Galan/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-43743" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Mexican armed forces during an anti-drug operation. Photo: Roberto Galan/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>It was with the end of the PRI’s 70-year rule that the Mexican drug game changed profoundly, as the power of cartels increased and their byzantine political squabbles could no longer be regulated or contained by the government. What was once a relatively united federation under the<a href=""> iron rule of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo</a> became divided into a vipers’ nest of competing factions with ancestral grudges. Just one year after the PRI left power, drug kingpin Joaquín Archivaldo &#8220;El Chapo&#8221; Guzmán Loera escaped prison, leading his Sinaloa Cartel in new wars against its rivals.</p> <p>However, we now know the drug war was a <a href="">sham</a> from the start, embodied by revelations that Mexico’s<a href=""> chief drug crusader</a>, ex-Defense Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, was working on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel for years. He is now in a U.S. prison. As the Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez puts it:</p> <blockquote class="wp-block-quote"><p><em>“In both cases the &#8216;strategy&#8217; has limited itself to providing protection for the Sinaloa Cartel. The guarantor of the continuity of this protection has been the sinister police chief Genaro García Luna . . . [He] has even gone to the point of stating that there is no other option except to let El Chapo operate freely and &#8216;establish order&#8217; among the other criminal groups, as it will thus be easier for the government to negotiate with one cartel rather than five.”</em></p></blockquote> <p>The U.S. also stands accused of favoring the Sinaloa cartel. In 2014, Mexican newspaper El Universal<em> </em><a href="">published</a> documents showing that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had secured cooperation from Sinaloa operatives that would allow them to continue their trafficking activities in exchange for intelligence on rival groups.</p> <p>Mr. Calderón’s successor, the PRI’s Enrique Peña Neto, fared no better — he also stands accused by El Chapo himself of accepting a USD 100 million bribe upon taking office. His corruption-plagued administration and the cover-up of the infamous massacre of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, likely carried out by the police and armed forces, stained the PRI&#8217;s image.</p> <p>While El Chapo may be <a href="">sitting in a U.S. prison</a> along with many of his former rivals and colleagues, the removal of major kingpins from the drug game only made things worse. Locking up and killing bosses only served to open up new job opportunities for legions of ambitious <em>narcotraficantes</em>.</p> <p>Most of the major cartels have split into dozens of smaller rivals, fighting over territory across the country and expanding into domestic drug sales, kidnapping, oil theft, the avocado trade, illegal mining, and extortion leading to innumerable localized conflicts. The result was Mexico’s murder rate soaring to an all-time high and both political parties in charge during this period being left utterly discredited. And despite billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives being wasted on fighting the war on drugs, the supply of controlled substances has not let up, even during the coronavirus pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <h2>The Peña Nieto Disaster</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="Only 12 percent of Mexicans approved of Enrique Peña Nieto by the end of his term in office. Photo: 360b/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-43742" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Only 12 percent of Mexicans approved of Enrique Peña Nieto by the end of his term in office. Photo: 360b/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>Enrique Peña Nieto will go down as perhaps the most disastrous leader in the history of the PRI, destroying the once all-powerful party once-and-for-all. His main electoral promise was to restore calm and the rule of law to a traumatized nation, which he decidedly failed to deliver, leaving office with a country that was more violent than ever.</p> <p>Despite promising to kickstart economic growth, the economy was still an utter mess by the end of his term, with 50 percent of the population stuck in poverty. His much-touted education and oil privatization programs amounted to very little. Meanwhile, the right-wing PAN supported Mr. Peña Nieto almost uncritically, leaving them almost as tarred as the PRI.</p> <p>It was into this vacuum of power that Andrés Manuel López Obrador emerged as a leading candidate in the 2018 elections. He courted the anti-establishment vote by ditching his own PRD party, mired in corruption scandals, the embrace of neoliberal economic reforms, and sordid links to drug cartels. And in an interesting example of asymmetry with Brazil, a lifelong left-winger successfully pursued an anti-crime and anti-corruption ticket.</p> <p>While Jair Bolsonaro promised to shoot his way through corruption and crime in Brazil, AMLO promised to demilitarize the war on drugs and introduce a new redistributive regime funded by the money saved through anti-corruption efforts.&nbsp;</p> <p>AMLO claimed that Mexico&#8217;s endemic corruption was linked to the country&#8217;s embrace of neoliberalism by a &#8216;powerful mafia&#8217; that rules the country, saying that ending it would require a new form of republican civic virtue. Interestingly, AMLO doesn’t rally against a capitalist class or one-percenters exploiting the country, he prefers to label his enemies a ‘mafia’ — which his critics claim is dangerous social polarization.&nbsp;</p> <p>The collapse of legitimacy of both the PAN and the PRI saw them utterly routed in the 2018 elections, and it was the voice of those who felt betrayed by Mexico’s corrupt political class, those who had lost loved ones in the drug war, and those who just wanted to a new start for the country that brought AMLO to the presidency. Given the scale of the disaster he inherited, much of AMLO’s mission was to make normal politics possible again. In the next article I will examine to what extent has been able to accomplish this mission.

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Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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