CHILPANCINGO, Mexico — Salvador Rangel, the bishop of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, recently turned down an offer for an armed security detail from the government of Guerrero, one of the most violent states in Mexico.
“I told them that, regrettably, I’m more afraid of the authorities than I am of the drug traffickers,” Rangel said.
The bishop’s diocese covers a critical patch of territory in the heroin trade, and in the two years he’s held the post, Rangel has met repeatedly with capos from the cartels that control the region; he recently made headlines by persuading them to return electricity and running water to an entire town they had terrorized in a turf war.
Such decisions haven’t been met kindly by local media, but Rangel insists they’re simply a reflection of Mexico’s harsh political reality.
“Politicians in the state and national governments have gotten very upset with me for making what they call irresponsible statements,” Rangel said. “But the truth is, many politicians — their godfathers are the narcos. They’re the ones who funded their campaigns. And that explains why so many narcos are so well protected.”
That, according to Rangel, is what’s behind the unprecedented violence in this year’s national elections in Mexico, during which 48 candidates were assassinated in the span of nine months, according to the consulting firm Etellekt.
“He’s a populist insofar as he appealed to popular sentiments against a corrupt elite.”
That environment of widespread, entrenched corruption also explains the staggering rise of Mexico's new president: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 64, better known among his supporters as AMLO. Opponents and international observers are quick to chalk up AMLO's win to a wave of populism sweeping the globe — he's often compared to both Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump — but his landslide victory is far more rooted in local conditions.
AMLO’s resounding win is best understood as a direct reaction to Mexico’s lethal combination of violence and corruption. Vast numbers of Mexicans perceive the state as having lost all legitimacy, and AMLO was the only candidate who could claim with any credibility to be running against the establishment — or as he calls it, the “mafia of power.”
“He’s a populist insofar as he appealed to popular sentiments against a corrupt elite,” said Gibrán Ramirez Reyes, a political scientist in the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. “And there is a corrupt elite.”
Mexico’s current era of narco-violence dates back to 2006, when the Mexican state declared war on the cartels and flooded the country with heavily armed soldiers and police. In that time, there have been more than 200,000 murders and a minimum of 35,000 forced disappearances.
What has changed over the years for the Mexican people is the realization that the scale of this violence is a direct function of government corruption. Because so many officials have been co-opted, the state is now understood as the key actor in this endless cycle of violence and impunity, responsible for both perpetrating atrocities and failing to prosecute them otherwise.
The state’s shift from victim to villain in the eyes of the public never appeared more evident than when 43 student teachers were forcibly disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014. The case remains open, but the public’s opinion appears closed: “Fue el estado” (It was the state) has emerged as the tagline after years of botched investigations.
The state’s corruption also plays out in more traditional ways. Reports of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s $7 million mansion, for example, were not lost on a public facing ever-widening economic inequality.
“López Obrador was able to personify anti-corruption in a way that nobody else could.”
Over the course of Peña Nieto’s administration, such scandals made it so that the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) — which has dominated Mexican politics for close to a century — finally proved too toxic for the average voter. In a scramble to hang on to power, the PRI sank even deeper into the muck, overtly using state institutions to tilt the balance of the elections.
In this context, the core of AMLO’s message — one of his campaign slogans is “There can be no rich government for a poor people” — cut through the noise. “He was able to tap into a broader sentiment that’s not just fed up with corruption linked to organized crime and violence but also linked to the fact that economic life hasn’t improved,” said Maureen Meyer, Mexico program director for the Washington Office on Latin America. “He was speaking to a population that felt taken advantage of.”
Dismissals of AMLO as a “firebrand populist” and comparisons to demagogues like Chavez overstate the radicalism of his record and platform: As mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, he won praise for his fiscal responsibility and public-private partnerships; on the campaign trail, he made allies in banking and industry and promised not to raise taxes.
What AMLO did have that every other candidate lacked was an unimpeachable reputation in the eyes of millions of Mexicans. He first made his name by leading marches in his home state of Tabasco against electoral fraud. As mayor of Mexico City and as a three-time presidential candidate, he was famous for driving a cheap car and living in a modest home. And while some of his associates have been tainted by scandal, he himself never has. “López Obrador was able to personify anti-corruption in a way that nobody else could,” said Ramirez Reyez, the UNAM political scientist.
Now, AMLO’s supporters are left asking how their hero can even begin to tackle problems so vast and entrenched. And the candidate himself never quite made that clear: During the election, when pressed on how he would address corruption, AMLO often suggested that he could clean up government simply by leading by example.
“The idea of leading by example has its merits — it creates a negative incentive at all levels of government when the president himself is not involved in corrupt acts,” said Ramirez Reyes. “But it’s not a political program.”
Cover image: AMLO on the campaign trail. EL UNIVERSAL/Valente Rosas/RCC (GDA via AP Images)