AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
“The descent of the Mexican state into increasing violence, corruption, and leftist authoritarianism is a direct threat to the United States — and to Mexicans.”
So opens a letter from the Conservative U.S.-Mexico Policy Coalition, representing an alliance of U.S. and Mexican think tanks, public figures, and civil society groups. The letter highlights the rapid decline of the Mexican state over the past few years – a decline that has manifested in the collapse of law and order outside of the capital, especially in the northern provinces along the American border, where civil authority has lost what little control it exercised over powerful drug cartels.
The conservative coalition letter also refers to the polarization domestically between an increasingly authoritarian President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, who has seized control of Mexico’s formerly independent electoral commission, and his opposition.
Missing from the letter are three things: first, a context for the vital inter-connectedness of Mexico and the United States; second, a proper framework for understanding what role the Biden administration played in the deterioration of the Mexican state; and third, any clear vision for what effective action might look like to address these problems.
First, let us deal with the importance of Mexico. At a time when Taiwan is under imminent threat from China and Ukraine is fighting for its life, why should Americans concern themselves with which political party rules in Mexico City? That appears to be the question Biden and his team have asked themselves without a satisfactory answer.
The best answer was perhaps given by Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s longest serving President (1876-1880, 1884-1911): “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”
The underlying meaning of the statement is as true today as it was when Diaz uttered it and is as true for the United States as it is for Mexico. What Mexico does is America’s business, and what America does is Mexico’s business. Both the United States and Mexican governments need to be responsive to shifts and turns in the other, as each country is directly affected by the state of affairs in both.
AMLO’s relations with Biden got off to a rocky start. The Mexican president became one of the last leaders to congratulate Biden, having refused to do so while Donald Trump was still contesting the election. AMLO has been outspoken about both Twitter’s decision to ban Donald Trump and the subsequent prosecution of Trump, referring to the former as akin to the inquisition, and the latter as a “degradation of due respect for the law.”
As for the Biden team, they have alternated between two approaches when it comes to AMLO. The first is to treat Obrador as an ideologue with a plan to advance a leftist agenda. The other is to view AMLO’s behavior through the same lens of “Trumpist populism,” which is also how they approached Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India, Netanyahu in Israel, and Orban in Hungary. Neither is correct.
AMLO is a product of the Mexican political system, pursuing traditional 19th century Mexican caudillo approaches to government. AMLO’s aim is to secure central power not by creating a strong state, but by leaving every institution too weak to challenge the president. In the context of the 21st century, this has meant empowering cartels, human traffickers, and corrupt officials, and destroying civil society.
Mexico has always existed as a semi-feudal federation more than a single centralized state. The population is scattered into pockets divided by geographic gulfs of inaccessible terrain. Until the 20th century, it was quicker to travel from Mexico City to Veracruz and to take a ship north to reach the border states than to reach them overland from the capital.
The result was that politics at the state level were dominated by competition between elites. The power of the president in Mexico City lay in his ability to use patronage to intervene on the side of one faction or another, thereby ensuring both would woo him.
A wise president knew to balance strength with weakness. A president who allowed any single faction to control a state would find his own power non-existent, and any effort to exercise it would trigger civil war. A president who allowed competition to escalate could find himself faced with a local civil war likely to spread.
The result of this dynamic, after experiments with centralized rule during the 19th centuries which resulted in dozens of presidents often ruling for under six months, was that Mexico settled into a model of competitive authoritarianism. It was not fully democratic, but the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was also never like the Chinese Communist Party or even the Popular Action Party in Singapore. It was decentralized, and the power of the president was strictly limited by a constitutional prohibition on reelection.
It is not a coincidence that the movement toward democracy began in the northern provinces facing the American border, or that it was led by the National Action Party (PAN), a conservative, free-market party. The northern provinces stood to gain the most from open commerce with the United States, and governmental corruption, crime, and union power all stood in the way of exploiting the connection with the United States.
There were two other players in the transition, both of which seemed unimportant at the time but would become very important once they formed an alliance. By the end of the 1980s, both PAN in the north, and the elite of the PRI in Mexico City favored reform and liberalization due to the allure of economic integration with the U.S.
But both faced local rivals. The PAN faced a challenge from drug cartels who shared PAN’s enthusiasm for an open American border but were directly threatened by efforts to establish functional government along the Mexican side. The moves by the PRI to open Mexico’s economy and political system caused a revolt by old elites in the state-controlled unions, civil service, and security forces. They formed the PRD, or Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Lopez Obrador was the PRD candidate for president in 2006. A fiery leftist, he ran on a platform of reversing the economic reforms of his predecessors and closing the U.S. border to trade.
Not only did this threaten the PAN and PRI, but it also directly targeted the interests of cartels. It is not impossible that they played a role in his suspicious loss that year. Lopez Obrador, at least, seems to have believed they did.
When he ran for president again in 2018, he built a broad alliance. He won over not just the “Green Party,” effectively a front for the teachers and public sector unions, but also the cartel-linked Labor Party. His victory in 2018 was not a victory for the left over the right. It was a victory for the losers of the reform and liberalization process undertaken since the 1980s: the corrupt unions, the state sector, the cartels, and the old PRI families.
Obrador’s approach to authoritarianism has been an attempt to revert to late 19th century methods of Mexican governance. He has thrown his backing behind the local power brokers willing to nominally pledge allegiance to his Morena Party or its allies.
The problem is these elites are almost uniformly those regressive elements. Along the American border, it means backing cartel-linked politicians against the American-funded anti-drug police forces aligned with the PAN politicians. In the south it means backing human traffickers who need his protection against local judges and politicians less willing to bend their principals. In Mexico City, it has meant cosplaying as a leftist in foreign policy, and by backing abortion and same-sex marriage, while allowing the rigging of union elections and the violent suppression of strikes by those who question him.
In short, AMLO’s approach has been to back the worst people everywhere almost regardless of ideology. To reduce his approach to leftist ideology, as the Coalition letter does, or to populism, as Biden’s team does, is to misunderstand Mexico.
A populist would seek to appeal to the people over the politicians and elites. Obrador’s policy is to back the elites against the people everywhere, and his criteria for backing politicians is how little, not how much popular support they have. The less able they are to win power in a fair fight, the more dependent they are on him.
Obrador’s goal is to defeat constitutional gravity. The Mexican Constitution limits a president to a single term, and despite his machinations, Obrador lacks the majorities needed to change that. Therefore, he will need to rule through someone else, a hazardous task given the history of Mexican presidents betrayed and exiled by their chosen successors.
AMLO’s efforts therefore appear to be twofold: first, to elect a loyalist in July of 2024, and second to ensure they do not turn on him. To that end, Obrador needs to balance identifying a candidate strong enough to win with one who will be too weak to govern if and when they do. In Obrador’s need to hobble any chosen successor lies the opening the opposition will need.
The current frontrunners for the ruling coalition are former Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard and Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. Ebrard, who ran AMLO’s 2018 campaign, would be the strong favorite in a normal, democratic system, but his very qualifications are likely to count against him in the eyes of the one constituency which matters, that of his boss.
Obrador may well prefer Sheinbaum, whose appeal as an urban, progressive, and prospective first female president would simultaneously neutralize foreign and middle-class opposition at home, while ensuring that as president Sheinbaum would be eaten alive if she tried to challenge Obrador’s authority.
Whoever is selected by the ruling alliance will enjoy the advantages of AMLO’s hijacking of the electoral commission and feudal warfare on the opposition. But they will also benefit from his need to hobble any successor, and from the genuine outrage of the Mexican public with the chaos AMLO’s neo-feudal governance has brought to their country.
The opposition is currently divided. The old traditional parties, the PRI, the PAN, and the anti-AMLO rump of the PRD failed to unite in 2018 but managed 45 percent of the vote between them. They ran together in the 2021 midterm elections for Congress, losing to AMLO’s alliance by 3 percent, 44 percent to 41 percent.
The parties are united more in self-defense against AMLO’s assaults on the political balance of power than by ideology. PAN has historically been free-market and socially conservative but in the face of AMLO’s assaults it has increasingly divided into a liberal, professional wing, and a Catholic conservative one. It is nonetheless the dominant partner in the alliance because it retains a constituency even if its constituencies are often at war with each other.
The PRI, the old ruling party, was the party of the civil service and unions, but those have now defected to AMLO. It needs the presidency back and will support PAN or anyone else who can do it.
The PRD is a rump party commanding 3-4 percent of the vote. The leading candidates reflect the confusion of the alliance. One, Lilly Téllez, is a former Morena Senator, handpicked by AMLO; but expelled for her pro-life views and hostility to cartels. Another is Xóchitl Gálvez, a former President of the Senate for the PAN who now sits for the PRD, and is openly socially liberal. Two others are scions of famous dynasties. Simon Creel, who lost an election for Mexico City Mayor to AMLO in 2000, was chief of staff to Vicente Fox, and an unsuccessful 2012 PAN candidate, and Enrique De La Madrid, the son of the former President (1982-1988) who presided over the 1988 elections.
There is hope from outside the system. Eduardo Verástegui, a famous actor and movie producer, whose most recent work, Sound of Freedom, was a box office hit with audiences, especially among Christians and the Latin American market, is exploring an independent run. While he has yet to formally announce, his social media accounts have shared what can only be considered a campaign video, one whose slick production quality puts traditional Mexican campaign media to shame.
Verástegui is an outspoken conservative, but evidence so far is that his major focus will be on running against the entire Mexican political system, both Morena and the squabbling opposition parties.
Furthermore, while his strong pro-life views risk being tagged by Washington and the New York Times as “controversial,” they reinforce his image as a politician of conviction.
Most importantly, to make an issue of Verástegui’s conservative views, AMLO and Morena would have to take actual positions of their own on the issues. AMLO’s term has seen the national legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion through the courts, which has allowed him to claim credit with liberals, while also disclaiming any responsibility with conservatives.
To attack Verástegui for opposing elective abortion, Morena would have to adopt the position it is a good thing, and as recently as 2021, polls showed a majority of Mexicans disagreed.
There cannot be a worse prospect for the future success of Mexico, and a fruitful relationship with the United States, than a race between a Morena candidate who will be under Obrador’s total control, and a PAN/PRD/PRI candidate who has no compelling vision for the country concerning economic and social issues.
Such an election would likely come down to how Mexico’s own “good government liberals” behave – the ones who took to the streets when AMLO seized control of the electoral commission calling him a dictator, and who have begged for American intervention to remove him. If they are true to their own stated beliefs that AMLO is an authoritarian who is destroying Mexico, they should be able to stomach voting for an honest man with whom they disagree on one or two social issues.
If so, Verástegui could amass both the conservative and the liberal anti-corruption vote. If not, Mexico, and America, will get the Mexican government they deserve.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.