Mexican president looks to consolidate his power on the face of international criticism

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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrives to give his daily, morning news conference at the presidential palace in Mexico City, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Vice President Kamala Harris might find a more emboldened partner when she travels to Mexico City next week to negotiate more cooperation on immigration.

That’s because Mexico is holding elections on Sunday likely to help that country’s oft-nationalistic, populist president — Andrés Manuel López Obrador — consolidate power for the remaining three and a half years of his term, U.S. observers say.

“More important than the 15 governorships and 2,000 mayoral races in this election is whether AMLO (Lopez Obrador) is going to keep control of the Congress through his (political) coalition,” said Tony Payan, director of the U.S.-Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute of Public Policy and professor at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez.

Lopez Obrador is given to criticizing the United States on a wide range of issues, has been lukewarm to the Biden administration and prodded his MORENA Party congressional majority to pass a law in December limiting the activities of U.S. law enforcement agencies in his country.

Next week, he’s likely to suggest his country is willing to deploy additional resources to stem the northbound flow of migrants from Central America in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines and other U.S. aid, observers said.

Tony Payan

“Immigration should be a topic the two countries should find it easy to cooperate on. It’s vital for the United States to have Mexico’s assistance and it’s in Mexico’s own interest to maintain some control. Otherwise, it empowers criminal organizations, it leads to human rights violations, it feeds corruption and impunity. It leads to chaos. Cooperation should be a no-brainer,” Payan said.

However, if Lopez Obrador feels the Biden administration is pushing too hard or too publicly, especially after just having consolidated his power, his anti-American streak may get the best of him.

“AMLO has this penchant to oppose and resist Washington. The approach has to include some slow-fire pressure but also some carrots, such as COVID vaccines,” he said.

Late Friday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, tweeted that the United States would be donating 1 million COVID-19 vaccines to Mexico, which that country planned to apply to residents of its cities bordering the U.S.

The Mexican president’s nationalistic approach will become more pronounced after the elections. “That really sells in the polls. I worry it is already very strong,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.

That means the United States might have to provide more incentives or risk a reduction in cooperation not only on immigration but also in drug-enforcement assistance.

“In terms of the restrictions placed on U.S. agents, those definitely will remain in place or be further reduced,” Manjarrez said. “I do think they would definitely accept a higher level of financial assistance, such as for equipment, as well as intelligence information. Because of those nationalistic tendencies, they don’t want to be looked upon as weak, but will accept intelligence-based information.”

‘Dismantling’ democratic gains of the past 30 years

Several international publications have savaged Lopez Obrador on the eve of the upcoming midterm elections. “Mexico’s false messiah,” screamed the headline in The Economist. “Is Mexico’s president a threat to its democracy?” asked the Wall Street Journal.

Payan, a leading expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, was no kinder to Lopez Obrador.

“He’s a (Donald) Trump-styled politician who has governed by polarizing his country, by attacking political rivals, criticizing the news media and, in general, by handling public policy issues in a very acrimonious fashion,” Payan said.

If his coalition that includes MORENA, the Labor Party and the Green Party wins, the president will continue on a path to dismantle 30 years of progress in capping the power of the executive, building independent electoral and financial institutions and embracing a free market economy, the analyst said.

“They’re really a backward-looking coalition that want to return Mexico to a long-gone nationalistic, anti-American, state-led socioeconomic system of one-party rule. That is his vision,” Payan said, echoing concerns raised by the international news articles.

He added that even with a majority in the congress, Lopez Obrador has failed to address health and public safety concerns.

“He’s allowed the pandemic to play itself out. The healthcare system is completely broken. Then you have a deteriorating security situation. Cartels and criminal organizations are claiming cities, smuggling corridors, highways and even neighborhoods. These groups are not only into drug and human smuggling, but also into kidnapping, fuel theft and theft of natural resources while the government is offering zero resistance,” Payan said.

Lopez Obrador this week pushed back on some of his critics, stating on his morning news conference that there is peace in his country. “There is peace, there is tranquility,” the president said. When a reporter asked him if he could say the same of Aguililla, Michoacan, a town where the Jalisco New Generation is being blamed for mass killings, Lopez Obrador said “everywhere there is peace.”

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