Mexico’s Populist President Is Acting Pretty Authoritarian

López Obrador is widely considered a leftist, but he’s “openly undermining democracy as a whole, and institutions directly,” said a legal expert.
May 14, 2021, 4:14pm
Vice President Kamala Harris conducts a meeting with Mexico President  Andrés Manuel López Obrador  via video link from Washington, DC on May 7 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris conducts a meeting with Mexico President

Andrés Manuel López Obrador

via video link from Washington, DC on May 7 2021. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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MEXICO CITY — Hours before Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was scheduled to officially meet for the first time with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, he took the podium and accused the United States of funding “coup-plotters.”

The alleged traitors? A prominent anti-corruption group and an internationally recognized press freedom organization that had exposed corruption among the president’s allies and highlighted growing aggressions against journalists in Mexico. 

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The blow-up came only days after an elevated subway line collapsed in Mexico City, sending a train plunging to the ground and killing 24 people. Critics and even supporters of López Obrador saw his attack on the groups as an attempt to distract from the disaster, which tarnished two of his closest political allies: Mexico City’s mayor and the country’s foreign minister, who was mayor when the train line was built.

Once a left-wing darling, López Obrador has stepped up his attacks on the press, civil society groups, and watchdog agencies that question his actions. Even former allies who agree with his desire to elevate the poor, reduce inequality, and eradicate corruption are denouncing his methods — but behind closed doors. To criticize him openly means risking retaliation, they say.

“López Obrador will do everything that is needed to transform Mexico in his vision. If that means eliminating autonomous institutions, he will. If he can subjugate the judiciary to his will, he will,” said Pamela K. Starr, an expert on Mexican politics at the University of Southern California. “His administration was very clearly sending a message to the United States that if you are thinking about meddling in Mexico’s internal affairs, don’t do it.” 

Since January, López Obrador has suggested eliminating Mexico’s freedom of information institute, discredited the legitimacy of the National Electoral Institute ahead of midterm elections in June, pushed for an investigation into candidates from opposing parties, and is trying to extend the Supreme Court chief justice’s four-year term. 

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The Biden administration has overlooked López Obrador’s temper tantrums in order to get Mexico’s cooperation to stem Central American migration, but is tolerating what may prove to be a steady erosion of democratic institutions.

“He is openly undermining democracy as a whole, and institutions directly,” said José Antonio Caballero Juárez, an investigator at CIDE, a Mexico City research institute. 

Just how far López Obrador will go is a question that’s fiercely contested in Mexican circles, and provokes passion on both sides. 

López Obrador’s “bark is way bigger than his bite,” said Benjamin Cokelet, founder and CEO of Empower, which works to strengthen civil society in Latin America. Cokelet said previous administrations had worried him much more. “They didn’t use the bully pulpit to bully as much, but operated in the shadows as they used the mechanism of the state to carry out their agendas,” he said. “Of North American leaders in recent memory, [López Obrador] is the least of my concerns.” 

After sweeping into power in 2018 by a landslide, López Obrador quickly transformed Mexican politics around one person: Himself. His hours-long morning press conferences serve to dictate the daily news agenda, akin to former U.S President Donald Trump’s relentless tweets. He has cultivated an image as a man of the people, and his avuncular and folksy demeanor masks what many describe as one of the shrewdest political minds in modern Mexican history.

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The outburst over the “coup-plotters” was quintessential López Obrador. After accusing the non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity and press-freedom group Article 19 of seeking to undermine his government, and the U.S. of funding them, he fired off a letter to the U.S. The letter was markedly less aggressive than López Obrador’s declarations in front of the press, and didn’t even mention Article 19. But the affair served the president’s purpose of discrediting the groups among his base supporters.  

“López Obrador is using the old moorings of authoritarianism,” said Leopoldo Maldonado, regional director in Mexico for Article 19. He has “fostered this environment in which certain politicians and people feel like they have permission to assault us,” he said, noting that Mexico has ranked amongst the deadliest in the world for journalists for years. “It’s troubling because, as we have seen before, this begins as a public warning that can later materialize into measures to restrict funding and suffocate international support.”

The Biden administration has largely stayed on the sidelines, following the Trump administration’s playbook: Let the Mexican president do what he wants so long as he cracks down on migration. López Obrador deployed 10,000 troops to Mexico’s southern border earlier this year to detain migrants, setting the stage for an uneasy truce.

The calculation for Biden could quickly change if there is a detonation in the already growing number of single Mexican adults trying to reach the U.S., analysts said. The breaking point could come soon. The number of single Mexican adults apprehended at the U.S. border in April rose to its highest level in two decades.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy said in a statement that the two countries “have built a productive partnership to address the causes of insecurity, and that partnership has never been more important.”

And with less than a month to go before midterm elections in Mexico, any criticism from the U.S. could be spun to López Obrador’s benefit, said Dan Restrepo, the former national security advisor for Latin America under President Obama. “Anti-American nationalism is a very easy play for any Mexican politician.”

The June 6 elections will shape López Obrador’s presidency. Stained by a faltering economy, he has gone on the offensive as the chances his party will win a supermajority in Congress have faded. A big win, on the other hand, could embolden him. 

A lot is on the line. López Obrador wants to extend the Supreme Court chief justice’s term by two years, on the basis that the justice is “a man of integrity” who needs more time to oversee sweeping judicial changes aimed at rooting out corruption. Critics say it’s a thinly veiled attempt to win a favorable ruling on a controversial  electricity law that’s part of his oil-first energy policy. 

They also worry it’s a harbinger for López Obrador to do the same for his own presidential period. 

A spokesman for the president has said he wouldn’t seek to stay in office beyond his non-renewable six-year term — a statement that Starr, the University of Southern California professor, finds ambiguous.  
 
“López Obrador said he would not ask for this to be done for him,” she said. “He did not say, however, he would not accept it if it were done for him.”