Lopez Obrador Wins Historic Mexican Election – But Will he Tackle The Drug Problem With Duterte Style Commitment?

AMLO finally wins

For the first time in history, the Mexican people have elected a President from outside of the liberal/centre-right mainstream. But far from being a political outsider, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO as he is affectionately known in Mexico) is a political veteran. For five years he was the mayor of Mexico City while he previously ran for President in 2006 and 2012. In each case, he initially protested the result of the elections, claiming that corruption had resulted in an illegitimate result.

Now though, it would appear that AMLO’s time has come. Against a pool of three other front-line candidates, AMLO is projected to have received 52% of total votes which by Mexican standards is a landslide.

Throughout the campaign, AMLO filled town squares and football stadiums with supporters who have clung to his anti-corruption, anti-oligarchic, anti-Trump and anti-crime message more readily than in previous years. Where AMLO continues to be portrayed as a dangerous maverick by establishment parties and politicians with many likening him to a Mexican version of Venezuela’s revolutionary President Hugo Chavez, the comparisons seem to have backfired as the status-quo of neo-liberal Mexican leaders is being held increasingly responsible for the country’s crime epidemic, narco-gangster epidemic and a stagnating economy in which wealth is widely viewed to be distributed unevenly and unfairly.



In reality, it is not likely that AMLO will govern from the far-left after running a mostly populist and at times even centrist campaign which focused more on fairness and efficiency than wholesale changes to governance. Furthermore, while AMLO’s campaign was generally light on specific policy proposals, but due to the fact that he will not take office for another five months, he has more than enough time to craft a specific set of both domestic and foreign policies prior to being sworn in as President.

A protest for with a punch 

Neither AMLO’s style nor substance has changed a great deal since he first became mayor of Mexico city in the year 2000. While he was adamant that he was the actual winner of the 2006 Presidential election, even going so far as to hold a mock inauguration, calling himself the “legitimate President”, this time it is AMLO’s opponents who are conceding defeat.

While AMLO has made statements indicating that his radicalism will be tempered with a sense of pragmatism focusing on anti-corruption measures, Mexico has nevertheless experienced the same kind of rejection of the status quo that many recent prominent elections throughout the world have delivered.

Whether Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s victory in 2016, Donald Trump’s victory in the US months later, the new coalition of 92 year old former (and once again present) Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that recently stormed to victory or the even more recent formation of a populist/anti-establishment Italian government – AMLO’s victory very much fits in with the trend of both left-populists and right-populists winning big elections against the liberal/centre-right status quo.

In many ways of AMLO can deliver on his promises of fairer taxation, less corruption in both the public and private sectors and more jobs for Mexican industrial and agricultural workers, his presidency will have already been more successful than that of his recent predecessors. However, a big question remains: How will AMLO handle Mexico’s substantial drug problem?



AMLO Appears to Reject Duterte’s Anti-Drug Model 

Mexico’s drug war has been waged for far longer than Philippine President Duterte’s drug war and likewise it has been far deadlier. While Duterte has said many times that it is the goal of Philippine law enforcement officers to arrest rather than kill suspects, these policy statements are often misreported in the liberal media. In fact, as of early 2018, just under 4,000 people were killed in connection with the enforcement of anti-narcotics laws. Most of these deaths have resulted from suspects violently resisting arrest in manners that put the lives of both officers and the general public in danger. While some of Duterte’s more hyperbolic opponents claim that over 20,000 people have been killed in the Philippine drug war, in Mexico, a fully militarised drug war has killed over 120,00 in the last 12 years, while over 1.6 million people have been displaced from their homes.

AMLO continues to reject the present methodology in Mexico’s drug war which since the early 2000s has become increasingly militarised. By contrast, in The Philippines, most dangerous narco-criminals are brought to justice by police or locals who have been given the green light to take self-defence measures against increasingly violent drug traffickers, dealers and users, rather than by soldiers in tanks or airmen in helicopters. In the past AMLO suggested giving amnesty to drug barons rather than fighting their private armies who are often as heavily armed as the Mexican armed forces. This would represent a departure from Duterte’s zero-tolerance policy towards traffickers, dealers and public officials involved in the narco-trade.

But the biggest difference between the Mexican and Philippine experience is that while the Philippines is primarily a destination country for illegal narcotics in the form of chemical compounds used to make Shabu in illegal laboratories, Mexico is primarily a transit country for both South American cocaine and south Asian heroin whose ultimate destination is the United States. While it is true that The Philippines is still used as a transit country where Shabu traffickers set off for Malaysia, Indonesia and in some cases into north-east Asia where countries like China have a stick zero-tolerance policy for drug mules, the transit problem is still far more containable than that in Mexico which has become a kind of narco-dry port aimed at the lucrative US black market.



As Mexico’s narcotics trade is estimated to be worth as much as $90 billion per annum, it is far more difficult to envisage Mexico’s light at the end of this gruesome tunnel vis-a-vis The Philippines where the horrific drug problem can in fact be contained through a combination of taking users and dealers off the streets while cooperating with foreign countries to cut off naval import routes for the black narco-market. Furthermore, the comparatively modest Shabu market in The Philippines is worth considerably less than Mexico’s drug trade – with US estimates averaging around $7 billion per annum in total profits for Philippine narcos.


While AMLO’s proposals to tackle drug crime are less detailed than Duterte’s and also appear to lean towards non-traditional methods of economic amnesties rather than strict law enforcement, much of this is due to the fact that Mexico’s drug problem is influenced more by its location vis-a-vis the United States than Mexico’s own internal problems, of which there are nevertheless many.

Just as the Philippines can benefit from promises from Beijing to clamp down on criminal cartels operating in the South China Sea, so too can Mexico benefit from a more genuine effort by the US to enforce tougher measures to keep drugs from entering the country via the southern border.

Here, while AMLO was opposed Donald Trump’s border wall which has been designed to prevent the illegal passage of people into the US, perhaps AMLO and Trump may be able to see eye-to-eye on border security measures which are directed at the drug trade, something that like AMLO, Donald Trump has promised to tackle.



For decades, the US has played a devious game with Mexico in respect of the drug trade. The CIA has a record of facilitating the import of drugs from South America into the US via Mexico, something that became particularly apparent when CIA operatives smuggled cocaine into the US in the 1980s in order to fund the Contra insurgency in Nicaragua. While American journalist Gary Webb exposed the CIA’s role in the drug trade during the US administration of Ronald Reagan, a Mexican official speaking on the conditions of anonymity claimed that even in the Obama years, the CIA helped facilitate rather than prevent drug trafficking through Mexico.

Because of this, any Mexican President would have had an uphill battle in ending both the supply and demand of dangerous drugs. If AMLO’s anti-corruption stance can therefore translate into more transparent and sincere relations with the US in future years, this may be the only chance to save the citizens of both countries from the horror of narcotics. AMLO may not be Duterte, but in terms of the problems he must solve, he has even more on his plate.



In this sense, even if AMLO has a change of heart and decides to tackle the drug problem with a Duterte style zero-tolerance law enforcement approach, he will still require the full cooperation of the US superpower to the north in order for this to be effective.

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