The man who comfortably leads the pack in the race for Mexico’s presidency launched his campaign last month along the Mexico-Texas border, a few hundred yards from the border wall that has bolstered his candidacy.
The location was no coincidence.
“Neither Mexico nor its people will be the piñata of any foreign government,” Andrés Manuel López Obrador proclaimed in Juárez on April 1. “No threat, no wall, no bullying attitude from some foreign government is going keep us from being better and happy in our own country.”
No candidate has benefited more from the perceived anti-Mexico fusillade of policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration than López Obrador, a left-leaning nationalist who came within a hair of capturing the Mexican presidency 12 years ago.
Today, López Obrador leads most polls by double digits ahead of the July presidential election in a country desperate for change after a decade of unrelenting cartel violence and corruption scandals.
As the race enters its final month, some analysts say a López Obrador victory could bring fundamental change to the U.S.-Mexico relationship on vital security issues such as the fight against organized crime and Central American migration.
“López Obrador is saying, ‘We won’t be bullied any longer.’ To me that means he will be considerably less willing to cooperate with the U.S. on its strategic goals in Mexico,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “I see rougher waters ahead for the binational relationship. It’s a less predictable, more turbulent scenario.”
Though López Obrador’s message has become more moderate as he has consolidated his front-runner status, he has often spoken of redefining Mexico’s relationship with the U.S. as well as easing military pressure on cartels. During his failed 2012 campaign, he called for “substantial change” when it comes to how Mexico cooperates with the U.S.
“You don’t fix the problem of insecurity and violence with military assistance, intelligence work and shipments of helicopters and weapons,” he has said. More recently, he has come under intense criticism from his rivals after floating the idea of an amnesty for cartel members, and he has also said he is open to legalizing drugs as a way to reduce violence.
And in statements that probably set alarm bells clanging in Washington, López Obrador and his surrogates have signaled he will be less willing to cooperate on stopping the flow of Central Americans seeking to reach the United States.
Those who have worked with him say López Obrador has a pragmatic streak that belies his confrontational rhetoric.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza, who served while López Obrador was mayor of Mexico City a dozen years ago and now practices law in that city, said he found the candidate to be responsive to U.S. concerns regarding security at the United States’ downtown embassy. “We always found him to be very responsive and enjoyed a constructive relationship,” Garza said.
“Tone is going to matter, and the challenges to the bilateral relationship are very real. You will have some back and forth, perhaps a bit more nationalism if López Obrador is elected. But you listen for tone and then watch closely for what he is actually doing.”
As cartel killings rise, hints of new strategy
The stakes are high for both countries when it comes to cartel violence and immigration issues.
López Obrador has vowed to end drug violence within three years, but he has given few specifics on the campaign trail. However, he has left little doubt he will seek a different path from the current strategy.
Over the past decade, law enforcement and military cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. has grown ever closer as the two countries have collaborated on a strategy to strike at the heads of Mexico’s vast criminal networks. U.S. law enforcement personnel regularly take part in major operations within Mexico, including the arrests of high-ranking cartel leaders such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Through the 2008 Merida Initiative, the U.S. provides millions of dollars in training, funding and equipment for Mexico’s narco fight.
Running second in most presidential polls is Ricardo Anaya, a member of the conservative PAN party who is backed by an unusual left-right coalition. His party ushered in the current phase of direct cartel confrontation shortly after former President Felipe Calderón defeated López Obrador in 2006 and sent the military to attack cartels in the state of Michoacán.
And José Antonio Meade, placing third in most polls, is a member of the ruling PRI, which has largely continued the current strategy.
López Obrador has made waves by proposing an amnesty for cartel members who “re-adapt” themselves, which his rivals have seized on to paint him as weak on crime. He has given few specifics on the proposal but insists he won’t build his security strategy around the use of force.
López Obrador has also said he is open to a debate about legalizing drugs as a way to reduce violence, though he has not embraced legalization.
And while he has not definitively declared he will step back from direct confrontation with cartels, some observers believe he is heading down such a path.
“López Obrador proposes a program of peace and reconciliation,” College of Mexico research professor Marco Palacios said in the Reforma newspaper. “The government, the United States and his political adversaries want to continue the war.”
Mexico’s anti-cartel plan, sometimes called the “kingpin strategy,” has borne fruit: Highlighted by the spectacular El Chapo arrests, at least 107 of 122 “high-value” targets identified by the current administration had been arrested or killed as of last year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
But in many ways, the strategy has been a failure. Mexico seized just $36 million in criminal assets in 2016, a tiny amount for an industry that brings as much as $30 billion a year into cartel coffers.
And the strategy has resulted in even greater violence. Last year, Mexico set a record for cartel-related killings, with nearly 19,000, as criminal groups lost their leaders and splintered into smaller, less predictable factions. Four states in Central Mexico accounted for 40 percent of the slayings; just over 20 percent of the killings occurred in the six Mexican states that border the U.S.
Evan Ellis, Latin American studies research professor at the U.S. Army War College, has found that as many as 245 “interacting criminal groups” operate in the country now, and he says the proliferation of rival gangs results in more battles for lucrative drug routes.
“It gives such struggles an atmosphere of uncertainty, in which new leaders are often less experienced, and more disposed to prove themselves by committing murders in a particularly gruesome fashion,” he wrote recently.
Smaller groups also are less able to manage drug supply chains than their predecessors and are more likely to expand into other criminal enterprises, including extortion, kidnapping, illegal mining and gasoline theft.
Security experts say that panorama makes a negotiated peace with cartel leaders highly unlikely.
“Even if he wanted to do that, he’s constrained by what the groups are doing themselves. Much of the violence is cartel-on-cartel or cartel-on-civilian,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Austin-based intelligence firm Stratfor. “Even if you were able to take narcotics out of the equation, they are still involved in a myriad of other activities. You just can’t stop enforcing the law.”
Eric Olson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, said there is a growing consensus in both Mexico and the U.S. that the kingpin strategy needs to evolve into something more sophisticated. At a recent high-level meeting, U.S. and Mexican officials talked of doing a better job attacking cartel finances and business models.
The bedrock of López Obrador’s security vision rests on a pair of long-term puzzle pieces: reducing poverty and corruption, massive undertakings that don’t provide much strategic direction in the interim.
“I don’t think any of the candidates have presented a feasible, plausible plan to fight crime, corruption or violence in Mexico,” Payan said. “They need some better understanding of what’s going on.”
‘We won’t do the dirty work’
López Obrador has been more straightforward when he discusses the fate of Central American migrants passing through Mexico, a focus of the Trump administration’s plan to reduce illegal immigration.
The U.S. has grown increasingly dependent on Mexico to stop Central American migrants before they reach the U.S. Last year, Mexico apprehended more than 76,000 Central American migrants after prodding from the U.S. to beef up security on its own southern border, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico has plans to build 12 naval bases on the rivers separating Mexico from Guatemala and Belize, which in recent years have had little to no enforcement. Unarmed Mexican immigration agents have been directed to work with security forces to pick up unauthorized Central Americans, and Mexico has created more than 100 mobile highway checkpoints along known migrant routes.
“Should Mexico relax its enforcement efforts, tens of thousands of additional migrants could arrive annually to the U.S. border,” the Congressional Research Service warned in January.
López Obrador instead has pushed for more humane treatment of migrants, and he said recently that he favors moving the National Institute of Migration’s headquarters from the southern state of Chiapas, where it focuses on Central American migrants, to the northern border city of Tijuana to focus on aiding Mexican migrants.
“There are those who want us to detain our Central American brothers, but Mexico is free and sovereign, and we won’t do the dirty work of any foreign government,” López Obrador said in April, though he insisted he wants a relationship of “friendship and respect” with President Donald Trump.
And, using a word that has triggered Trump and his supporters, López Obrador’s proposed pick for interior secretary, Olga Sánchez Cordero, recently said that Mexico will be a “sanctuary” for migrants under an López Obrador presidency.
Scoring points by defying Trump?
The vagueness of López Obrador’s security proposals has resulted in a wide spectrum of interpretations.
“I think he’ll be focused on the needs of Mexicans and pragmatic about his relationship with the U.S.,” said the Wilson Center’s Olson. “My sense is that as long as the U.S. is not poking him in the eye, he will leave well enough alone and cooperate and be happy to do so, so he can focus on his priorities.”
Stewart, the Stratfor analyst, said despite the rhetoric, he doesn’t predict a major distancing between neighbors under a López Obrador presidency. “A lot of the cooperation that goes on is at the bureaucratic level, which is somewhat insulated from politics,” he said. “That cooperation is going to continue no matter what happens at the electoral level, at least at this point.”
In a March analysis, Ellis sketched out the other extreme, imagining a scenario in which Trump continued his antagonistic rhetoric while López Obrador was stymied by an opposition Congress obstructing his domestic priorities.
Trump’s continued push to make Mexico pay for a deeply unpopular border wall, the ongoing renegotiation of NAFTA and stricter immigration policies, such as removing protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — including nearly half a million Mexicans — could all push an incoming Mexican administration farther away from the U.S.
A “frustrated López Obrador could rally his base and generate symbolic ‘achievements’ (by adopting) a hostile posture toward the Trump administration, symbolically demonstrating a reassertion of Mexican national pride,” Ellis wrote. “Such a posture could include the shutting down of currently very close U.S.-Mexican defense cooperation.”
High stakes for Texas in Mexican elections
This story is part of the American-Statesman’s in-depth coverage of the July 1 Mexican presidential election, which will have significant consequences for the evolving relationship between Mexico and the U.S.
The stakes for the U.S. and Texas are high: Mexico’s next president will shape issues including the flow of Central American migrants to the Texas border, the cooperation with the U.S. in Mexico’s drug war and the future of commerce with the state’s top trading partner.
A record number of Mexican immigrants living in the United States and Central Texas are expected to vote, potentially playing a crucial role in determining Mexico’s next leader.