AMLO in office: pre-pandemic days

. Jul 03, 2020
Mexico City, Mexico April 23 2019. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of Mexico attend his everyday morning press conference in National Palace.

In the first installment of a three-part series on the political shifts Mexico has experienced, we analyzed the election of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In 2018, AMLO won a notable victory running as an anti-crime and anti-corruption candidate from the left-wing, and in the second part of this series we will examine his record in government so far, until the Covid-19 pandemic hit Latin America.

AMLO finished his first year in office with a staggering approval rating of 86 percent, with such achievements as paying scholarships for more than 10 million students, implementing subsidies and price supports for small farmers, offering interest-free microcredit to small business, opening a new public bank to distribute benefits to the millions shut out of the private banking sector, setting up a public telecoms company to provide internet to those overlooked by private ISPs, and increasing the minimum wage by 16 percent. 

However, his government has faced immense difficulties and increased opposition while enacting its program.

</p> <h2>AMLO on crime</h2> <p>AMLO came to power promising to end <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-fast-facts/index.html">Mexico&#8217;s War on Drugs</a> and restore a semblance of normality, following over a decade of carnage that has left anywhere between 115,000 and 250,000 dead. His anti-crime platform was based on three key positions: ending the drug war, replacing the army with a national guard, and granting amnesty and social opportunities rather than death or jail for those caught up in the drug trade, a campaign he dubbed “hugs not bullets.”&nbsp;</p> <p>However, violent crime is higher than ever. Mexico recorded a record number of 11,535 murders over the first four months of 2020, notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/03/09/pair-brutal-murders-cast-light-on-mexicos-femicide-problem/">femicide has also risen to new horrific highs</a>: April was the deadliest month in five years for Mexican women, with 267 murders.&nbsp;</p> <p>AMLO has been confrontational on the femicide issue, accused feminist groups drawing attention to the problem of being part of a conservative anti-government agenda, even though these movements backed him in the 2018 elections. Mexico&#8217;s femicide problem certainly predates AMLO — one needs only take a step back to hundreds of unsolved murders of young women in the border city of Ciudad Juárez in the late 90s, famously chronicled by Roberto Bolaño in his magisterial novel 2666. But the president has tended to downplay or even dismiss the murder of hundreds of Mexican women.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473.jpg" alt="Mexico Army patrols Cabo San Lucas during March 2020's spring break. Photo: CactusPilot/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-43818" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473-300x240.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473-768x614.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473-610x488.jpg 610w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473-203x162.jpg 203w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1684061473-387x309.jpg 387w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Mexican Army patrols Cabo San Lucas during March 2020&#8217;s spring break. Photo: CactusPilot/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>His grip on organized crime and drug trafficking also seems to have slipped, encapsulated by an incident last year, in which federal police released <a href="https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-50250987">Ovidio Guzmán López</a> from prison — son of notorious drug lord Joaquin &#8220;El Chapo&#8221; Guzmán — following his brief detention during a military operation. AMLO claimed that he had ordered Mr. Guzmán López&#8217;s release to prevent bloodshed, as hitmen belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel had flooded Culiacán, a city of a million people, taking the families of police officers hostage and erecting roadblocks. Similar incidents have been occurring for decades in Mexico and entire regions of the country have been controlled by organized crime for years. Intensifying the violence of the drug war is a solution that has failed again and again, wherever it has been tried.</p> <p>Critics have accused AMLO of continuing the drug war by another name, using his <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-mexico-security/mexicos-new-national-guard-was-created-to-fight-crime-but-now-its-in-a-face-off-with-migrants-idUSKCN1U20HU">newly formed National Guard</a>, and it is worth outlining the logic behind this policy. Large swathes of the country are occupied by the military, meaning that millions of Mexicans are essentially living under the rule of the armed forces rather than the constitution. Human rights violations — including torture and mass killings along with the targeting of journalists — in the areas under military occupation have been widespread.&nbsp;</p> <p>Regardless, the continued presence of the armed forces is largely supported by the Mexican population, who see the military as preferable to the local police, widely regarded as even more corrupt and violent.</p> <p>While the head of operations of the National Guard is a military officer, the force is technically under civilian control, and those accused of abuse are tried by criminal courts and not military law. In essence, it is a bid to restore civilian and constitutional order to much of the country.</p> <p>At this juncture, the brutal conclusion may well be that the horse has bolted and nothing can be done to restore the rule of law and end the brutal cycle of violence in Mexico. The militarized drug war has been one of the most catastrophic failures in recent history and efforts to chart a new approach are almost impossible, given the dozens if not hundreds of criminal factions that populate the country, and the scale of organized crime profits. The fracture of large cartels has increasingly resulted in the emergence of new smaller outfits that gain their profits from the control of localized territories and criminal rackets, rather than transnational trafficking. The continued economic woes faced by the country — intensified by the coronavirus — likely means that millions of Mexicans will become even more reliant on illicit economies to eke out a living.</p> <h2>A different brand of anti-corruption in Mexico</h2> <p>AMLO’s vision of anti-corruption differs from the carceral and technocratic approaches promoted by transnational organizations such as Transparency International. It is in essence the antithesis of Brazil’s celebrated Operation Car Wash, which ended up <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2018/04/13/operation-car-wash-latin-america/">spilling over into Mexico</a>. Rather than locking up the bad guys and promoting ‘transparency,’ accountability, and other such bromides, AMLO promotes what he calls “Republican Austerity.”&nbsp;</p> <p>For AMLO, corruption is fundamentally a matter of popular sovereignty. Republican Austerity’s central premise is that the savings from ending corruption can pay for social programs needed to reinvigorate the Mexican Republic.&nbsp;</p> <p>Corruption in the country is deeply encoded within the structure of the state. It was vital to the 71-year-long rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI): it depended on clientelist networks built up over decades to maintain the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2019/01/30/amlo-bolsonaro-mexico-brazil/">corporatist system</a> that sustained their “perfect dictatorship.” Following the 1980s debt crisis, the PRI embraced privatization, portraying it as a form of democratic anti-corruption, dismantling the clientelist networks that had governed the country. </p> <p>Corruption had been conceived as the maneuver of money from state-owned companies to the pockets of crooked politicians, and privatization was a form of democracy that would end these networks. However, the reality is that the neoliberal era beginning in the 1990s saw a new orgy of corruption, as bribes became the currency for divvying up the spoils of state-owned enterprises into the hands of politically connected individuals, giving rise to the Mexican version of the Russian oligarch, embodied by figures such as business magnate Carlos Slim.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1764756371.jpg" alt="AMLO supporters stage anti-corruption protest. Photo: Luis Raul Torres/Shutterstock" class="wp-image-43819" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1764756371.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1764756371-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1764756371-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1764756371-610x407.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>AMLO supporters stage anti-corruption protest. Photo: Luis Raul Torres/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>AMLO’s predecessor in office, President Enrique Peña Neto of the PRI, brought about a new golden age of Mexican corruption. His six-year-term saw ten of the PRI&#8217;s 19 state governors face serious corruption accusations, with many fleeing the country and some ending up in jail. The most infamous case involved former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte and his theft of an estimated USD 3 billion.&nbsp;</p> <p>Upon being sworn in as president, AMLO promised to let sleeping dogs lie and refused to investigate previous governments and presidents for corruption. Instead, he claimed that corruption was deeply linked to <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/03/24/amlo-bolsonaro-feel-the-limits-of-personalized-politics/">neoliberalism and inequality</a>; real anti-corruption would instead reduce government largesse, wasteful spending, and the theft of state funds, channeling the money saved into social programs that would benefit the poor.&nbsp;</p> <p>The majority of AMLO’s anti-corruption efforts have been symbolic. As a few examples, he transformed the presidential palace in Mexico City into a public museum — preferring to live in a simpler abode — he slashed his own salary by 60 percent, and sold off luxury government jets and expensive cars, promoting personal austerity in the presidential office. His first act in office was to reduce the salaries of the elite of the federal bureaucracy, including judges. In a country defined by the symbolic distance between the upper crust and society at large, these moves enjoyed popular traction.</p> <p>His major anti-corruption effort in his first year in office consisted of a crackdown on the fuel racket built around the large-scale theft of gas from state-owned oil company Pemex, which was then sold at private gas stations. This entire criminal industry was worth over USD 3 billion a year. AMLO&#8217;s predecessors had tacitly allowed this racket to spiral out of control in order to justify their attempts to privatize Pemex. It is no coincidence that the country’s most important pipelines are also located in areas with the highest incidence of cartel violence, as crime syndicates such as the Zetas have been deeply <a href="https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/mexico-fuel-theft-big-earner-zetas/">involved into the petroleum industry</a>, including using terrorism to clear people off communally owned land sitting atop shale gas reserves.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>AMLO&#8217;s plan was to send troops to protect strategic pipelines and implement reforms within Pamex. Despite facing a media-driven opposition campaign against this crackdown, AMLO was able to reduce oil theft by 95 percent — from 81,000 barrels per day in November 2018 to just 2,000 per day in 2019. The money saved was then channeled toward social programs. Other efforts include clamping down on tax evasion and forcing companies to pay back taxes, which the press has widely condemned as an authoritarian move.</p> <p>It is too early to properly gauge the success of these efforts but they offer a fascinating alternative to the spectacle of Brazil&#8217;s Operation Car Wash and other heralded international anti-corruption drives in the region. However, AMLO and his party have not been immune from corruption allegations. His National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party remains mostly inchoate, lacking strong leadership and direction, with the president maintaining his distance and claiming it is up to the party to define its own path.</p> <h2>Social policy in AMLO&#8217;s Mexico</h2> <p>AMLO inherited a sluggish economy hampered by structural issues, <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2020/06/30/more-than-half-of-brazilians-workers-are-out-of-a-job/">high unemployment</a>, and bleak prospects. As of writing, things have only gotten worse and this predates the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. While economic growth has been lackluster, the president has argued that the success of his government should not be measured by GDP growth. AMLO’s main policies have essentially been soft Keynesianism without deficit spending or massive tax hikes. And, crucially, the openly left-wing Mexican government has so far refused to raise taxes on the rich and large corporations.&nbsp;</p> <p>The original plan was to use the money saved by his anti-corruption drives to fund large-scale social initiatives, such as job programs for young adults — in part to encourage them to avoid the temptations of crime — <a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/04/30/brazil-bolsonaro-economic-team-falls-out-over-infrastructure-plan/">major infrastructure projects</a>, and price guarantees, and subsidies for small agriculture producers to encourage them not to grow poppies — and veer away from the heroin trade.</p> <p>AMLO has faced significant criticism for his austerity measures and resistance from indigenous groups, liberals NGOs, and some sections of the left, who are hostile to his infrastructure projects that include a new airport for Mexico City and a proposed railway line on the Yucatán peninsula.&nbsp;</p> <p>While in some ways laudable, AMLO’s social policy has so far been too little too late in the face of mounting crises, and even those on the right-wing have called for the president to embrace deficit spending. It seems increasingly likely that his central premise of using recovered funds from anti-corruption efforts to substitute the need to tax the rich was a mistake.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1668348145.jpg" alt="March 8, 2020 protest against gender-based violence in Mexico City. Photo: Photo Sendra/Shutterstock Photo Sendra" class="wp-image-43820" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1668348145.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1668348145-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1668348145-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/shutterstock_1668348145-610x407.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>March 8, 2020 protest against gender-based violence in Mexico City. Photo: Photo Sendra/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <h2>Languishing opposition</h2> <p>Despite AMLO’s mixed record in government so far, Mexico’s opposition remains moribund. Traditional parties are discredited, and opposition politicians have been struggling to craft a credible alternative. Their main platforms — reigniting the drug war and pushing privatization — remain unpopular. Furthermore, the consistent attempts to tar AMLO as the Mexican version of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, launching Mexico’s own <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/05/08/how-not-to-invade-a-country-the-venezuela-edition/">Bolivarian Revolution</a>, have been mostly ineffective.</p> <p>Myriad failed opposition fronts have been launched, all of which came to nothing despite great media fanfare. Most recent polling indicates that AMLO’s Morena party is set to sweep next year’s legislative elections.</p> <p>Like Brazil, the main locus of opposition has moved from Congress to Mexico’s powerful state governors. While the PRI and PAN have been reduced to rump parties at a federal level, governors continue to exercise power and are attempting to present states like Jalisco as oases of moderation and pragmatism compared to the federal government, with an eye on the next election. The opposition still can count on the support of Mexico’s leading business figures and the majority of the mainstream media.&nbsp;</p> <p>In essence, Mexico faces deep structural problems accumulated over decades and it is too early to judge AMLO’s term pre-Covid-19. But the crises faced by the Mexican president already seemed insurmountable, even before the pandemic arrived in Mexico.

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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