Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s first six months: Success?
Murder rates across Mexico are still on the rise – and that is just one troubling metric.
Mexico City, Mexico – Leonardo Lopez is one of the rare Mexico City taxi drivers who doesn’t consider himself an “Obradorista”, as the loyal followers of Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador call themselves.
“I did vote for him,” says Lopez. “But it was more about wanting a change than about Obrador.”
Lopez is one of more than 30 million voters in Mexico who gave the new president an historic landslide victory in July’s election, which he won with over 50 percent of the vote. But today, six months after the new leader took office on December 1st, things are not looking quite as expected.
“They’ve failed us on everything,” says Lopez. “He promised to bring down gas prices, and it hasn’t happened. Insecurity is even worse than it already was. Now I see even more people getting ripped off everywhere on the streets in broad daylight”.
Mexico’s president – often called by his initials, AMLO – vowed to tackle insecurity in a country where more than 70 percent of reported crimes go unpunished, and 90 percent of crimes are not reported due to mistrust of authorities.
But after he took office six months ago with an overwhelming house majority, some key issues seem unchanged.
Killings on the rise
Murder rates across Mexico are still on the rise, and reached their highest levels on record since 2011 with nearly 3,000 slayings in January alone. In Mexico City, the murder rate has increased by 100 percent.
Obrador’s lead strategy for addressing security was creating Mexico’s National Guard – a force combining military and federal police officers to ensure public safety.
The military has been on the front lines of public security ever since former President Felipe Calderon declared a “war on drugs” in 2006. But the strategy hasn’t proven effective in stopping organised crime.
“The military didn’t have a legal framework to enforce public security, so legalising its presence might help them do a better job,” Lilian Chapa Koloffon, a security analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“But while the National Guard might help the government recover territory from the cartels, there’s no evidence to explain how exactly this strategy will help reduce house robberies and the most common crimes. We need a strategy for that,” says Chapa Koloffon.
Political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor says the reason behind the lack of additional strategies is perhaps that Lopez Obrador wanted his social policy to be part of his security policy.
The president has repeatedly said that many of the key issues affecting Mexicans – including immigration – can be fixed by “addressing their causes”. Proposed solutions include achieving better wealth distribution and providing better education and working opportunities for people.
“While this strategy is interesting and makes sense over the long term, it won’t solve the most pressing everyday security problems,” says Bravo Regidor.
Ending corruption was another key promise during Obrador Lopez’s campaign. Yet even before he took office, his administration used public referendums (which drew widespread criticism because of voter informality and low turnouts) to green light 10 hallmark projects, some of which already had investors and allocated lands.
According to the watchdog group Mexicanos Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad, rather than securing the lowest price for public projects, AMLO’s administration has directly awarded more than 70 percent of the contracts to select companies. It is not clear how or why they were chosen because there was no formal bidding process. This is nearly the same percentage seen in 2018 under President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose administration was plagued with corruption scandals.
Lopez Obrador said he would pardon corrupt government officials from previous administrations because “there’s so much corruption in Mexico that there aren’t enough prisons or courts to prosecute them all.” Making matters worse, his government has not yet announced any high-profile prosecutions.
However, he did scrap an ongoing multimillion-dollar airport construction project, first alleging corruption and later claiming it was too expensive. Government officials told local reporters the cost of cancelling the entire airport construction project would not exceed $5.3bn.
To avoid setting off alarms among investors, Lopez Obrador paid back bondholders – at a cost of $1.8bn to Mexican taxpayers.
“But paying back the investors was a good move,” Juan Mendoza, an economic analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Otherwise, consequences would have been catastrophic.” Investors would have withdrawn their funding, causing the currency to plummet.
Even so, investors are wary about Mexico’s economic future. In March, agencies lowered their credit outlook ratings on government debt and Mexico’s state-owned petroleum company, Pemex.
“Mexico will be making a serious mistake if it allows credit ratings for Mexican debt and Pemex to drop,” economic analyst Luis de la Calle told Al Jazeera. “It hasn’t happened yet, and Mexico should aim not only to maintain its current ratings, but to improve them.”
In a move to recover investors’ confidence, Lopex Obrador got JP Morgan, HSBC and Mizuho banks to refinance Pemex’s debt and open new credit lines for $8bn.
Yet Mendoza believes that there are few solid medium- and long-term economic strategies laid out in the National Development Plan, and that Mexico should be seeking more opportunities beyond oil and mining.
De la Calle considered it premature to assess the government’s performance so soon, but believes the president may not be fulfilling his campaign promises quickly enough.
“Mexico is missing out on the opportunity to step in and position itself within the international market as a diversifier of China’s market and make investing in Mexico attractive.”
He added that a successful trade agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada would be interpreted as a sign of competitiveness to investors with respect to Asia.
However, on Thursday US President Donald Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico if Lopez Obrador doesn’t halt illegal migration to the US by June 10 – a move that stressed the relationship between both countries.
Obrador Lopez sent Trump a letter calling for the avoidance of confrontation, and Friday morning, he said he would respond to Trump’s threats with “great prudence”, sending off his finance minister to negotiate with Washington.
In response, markets in both countries reacted, stocks tumbled and the Mexican peso lost value against the US dollar.
Even so, says Mendoza, “policymakers in Mexico are listening, and that’s important. There’s still hope that things can change because we are not yet seeing deceleration or crisis, and we’re right on time to correct course.”
Bravo Regidor described Obrador Lopez’s first six months as “disruptive” because “he started out with the idea of changing everything, so he centralised and redirected government expenditure” and because “almost every day we hear about new and shut-down programmes”.
Science and technology, arts and culture, immigration and shelters for victims of domestic violence are just some of the government expenses that faced severe cuts in order to fund the president’s new – and sometimes unorthodox – programmes.
Most of the government’s funds will be directed to the oil, mining and construction sectors, as well as to social programmes.
But there will also be an institute devoted to returning stolen money to the common people – an organisation created to ensure that wealth confiscated from criminals returns to the government’s coffers.
Properties will have placards bearing the name of the drug lord or corrupt politician from which they were confiscated, AMLO announced.
There will be an office at the presidential palace to incentivize baseball, AMLO’s favourite sport – and it is scheduled to receive more than $110m during his administration.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s public health system is recovering from its biggest crisis in decades. There were large budget cuts, and the government froze $63m in cash flow to hospitals, creating staff and medicine shortages that left pediatric and adult patients across the country without options for surgery and chemotherapy.
“He calls it ‘austerity’, but it’s more like ‘cannibalism,’ since he’s eating up resources from programmes to finance the other ones he cares about,” says Bravo Regidor of Mexico’s president. “It’s the government eating its own organs in order to grow others, and this is coming at a great social cost.”
Hopes are still high
After six months in office, Lopez Obrador enjoys popularity that remains high, with local polls showing he has approval ratings of 60 percent.
“He’s been very successful in filling the authority gap left by his predecessor,” says Bravo Regidor. “He’s created a strong perception that someone is in charge, addressing important topics, and that he’s close to the people.”
Every morning at 7am, the president addresses the press to brief reporters on new programmes and answer their questions. It’s a stark contrast to the handful of such conferences that President Pena Nieto – or any other president – held during his six-year term.
Lopez Obrador capped high-level officials’ salaries and promised to raise lower-level ones in government. He ditched his bodyguards, sold the presidential plane, and flies coach to travel across Mexico. Instead of moving into the presidential residence, he turned it into a museum. It’s all part of what he calls a “republican austerity” policy, and people are responding positively to it.
Lopez Obrador’s key social programmes involve giving money directly to senior citizens, people with disabilities, students and other vulnerable groups. Supporters of this direct-support strategy argue it will reduce the risk of funds being siphoned off by corrupt actors. But opponents see it as a populist move.
In a parallel strategy, AMLO scrapped his predecessor’s hallmark education bill and replaced it with a new one that would make education free from elementary school all the way through college.
Even so, in an attempt to make amends with powerful teachers’ unions, he removed the teachers’ mandatory performance evaluation system in a country that has consistently rated among the lowest in almost every international education test.
To crack down on rampant fuel theft – a practice called “huachicoleo” because it’s led by criminal gangs known as “huachicoleros” – Obrador Lopez cut off the fuel supply through major pipelines and diverted it through guarded tankers across the country.
While huachicoleo was causing billions in losses to Pemex, the improvised strategy led to fuel shortages throughout Mexico, and people had to queue for hours at gas stations during the weeks that the fuel was diverted.
But not even the fuel crisis had an impact on AMLO’s popularity. More than 50 percent of Mexicans approved of his strategy, according to leading pollsters.
“It was totally worth it, because it was to tackle huachicoleo,” says Lopez, the cab driver, who said he didn’t mind the sacrifice that the fuel crisis personally cost him even as he lost money queuing for hours at gas stations.
After six months, “it’s still too early to see results,” says Lopez, siding with his president. “Let us hope for the best.”