Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the Mexican presidency in a landslide election on Sunday. Obrador—or Amlo, as he’s commonly called—is a left-wing populist of the sort common to Latin America. A former mayor of Mexico City who twice ran for president and lost, in 2006 and 2012, the 64-year-old Obrador, who spent decades as a radical outsider in Mexican politics, now finds himself in the seat of power in a country that’s falling apart.
During his populist campaign, the silver-haired Obrador railed against the corruption of incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto and his the conservative Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which Obrador denounced, not without good reason, as a “mafia of power.” Indeed, under Peña Nieto Mexico’s economy has stagnated and crime has spiraled out of control. It’s not a stretch to say the intertwined crises of poverty, corruption, and crime have driven Mexicans in desperation to elect their first leftist president since 1934.
Conservative media in America have greeted the news with alarm. Writing here at The Federalist on Friday, Helen Raleigh warned that Obrador’s “radical ideas will spell trouble for both Mexico and the U.S.,” citing his affinity for socialist dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. His positive view of illegal immigration to the United States could precipitate “a surge of illegal crossings at our southern borders.”
Concerns about Obrador and the border are especially acute among conservatives. Victor Davis Hanson declared last week in National Review that Americans should be concerned about Obrador because he is “anti-American” and will position Mexico as an “aggressor” by promoting the notion that Mexicans have a “human right” to illegally enter the United States.
Beyond illegal immigration, conservatives fear Obrador’s socialist tendencies. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal warned Friday that an Obrador victory would cause Mexico to “slide backward,” undoing the economic progress of recent decades and undermining Mexico’s rising middle class. Fears of a leftist Mexican president have been echoed by The Daily Caller, Fox News, and even Sen. John McCain.
A Deep Crisis South Of The Border
But Obrador is no Fidel Castro—or even a Chávez or Maduro. The problem with all these conservative analyses is that they ascribe far more agency and ability to Mexico’s president and central government than is warranted. The Mexican state as it exists is almost entirely incapable of the sort of strategic vision and planning that Obrador’s detractors in the American press ascribe to it. Conservatives with hawkish views on immigration especially write about Mexico as if it’s a healthy, functioning country with control over its own borders, north and south, not a place where civil society is in a state of collapse.
Hanson nods toward this reality, noting that “drug cartels all but run the country on the basis of their enormous profits from unfettered dope-running and human-trafficking into the United States.” Yet the thrust of his argument is that Obrador represents a serious threat—as if the Mexican state is in control of the country in a meaningful way.
By all accounts, it is not. Last week, the Associated Press reported on the rise of “mass crimes” throughout Mexico, in which “whole neighborhoods [defy] police and military personnel,” stealing freight trains full of merchandise or illegally tapping fuel pipelines. Much of the crime is reportedly driven by widespread despair and disgust for the government among common people, which powerful criminal syndicates are exploiting:
‘The logic of the people is that they see politicians and officials stealing big time … and they see themselves as having the same right to steal as the big-time politicians,’ said Edgardo Buscaglia, an international crime expert and research fellow at Columbia University. ‘You begin to create an ethical code in which, ‘If the upper-class people can steal and get away with it, we can steal, too, with complete justification.’’
In May, armed men broke the locks on two supermarkets in the southern city of Arcelia in Guerrero state and allowed local residents in to loot them. Police didn’t show up for hours.
Guerrero security spokesman Roberto Alvarez said the stores’ owners had refused extortion demands from a local splinter of La Familia cartel and the looting was punishment for not paying.
Cartels across the country no longer limit their activities to drug smuggling or human trafficking, but have branched out into fuel theft, illegal fishing, mining, and logging. Ordinary Mexicans, especially those in rural areas, are often left with few options except to work for cartels, sometimes growing opium poppies or working as lookouts and drug mules. In some parts of the country, the “social controls” that might prevent mass crimes are simply gone, drawing comparisons to places like Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Somalia.
Meanwhile, violence is rampant across the country and on track for a record number of homicides this year. In the state of Guanajuato, an agricultural and manufacturing hub northwest of Mexico City that had one of the lowest murder rates in 2010, there were more than 2,000 execution-style killings last year and more than 1,000 in the first four months of this year. In 2007, there were only 51.
Mexico Is Becoming Ungovernable
None of this is to say that Americans shouldn’t be interested or concerned about who is president of Mexico. Indeed, it would behoove all Americans—and especially policymakers in Washington—to pay more attention to our southern neighbor’s health and state of affairs. But the most important question about Mexico is not whether a left-wing populist is president, it is whether the Mexican state, under any president, can govern the country.
Obrador has been elected on a litany of impossible promises and flimsy socialist rhetoric one would expect from any Latin American leftist. But he is unlikely to unleash a Chavez-style takeover of the economy or summarily withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Indeed, Obrador has significantly diluted his opposition to NAFTA and has campaigned on moderate, if vague, economic policies.
Whatever risks Obrador presents, the far greater problem is that Mexico is becoming ungovernable—a failed state with which we share a 2,000-mile border. If we think the growing chaos and unrest south of the border will not spill over into the United States, we’re deluding ourselves. It has in fact already spilled over, and is now only a matter of severity.
If we continue to ignore the collapse of our southern neighbors and maintain our longstanding—and misbegotten—policy of benign neglect, we should expect the flow of illegal immigrants and families seeking amnesty to number not in the tens of thousands but in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps the millions. At that point, U.S. policymakers and American voters must regard the crisis for what it is: a foreign policy and national security matter, not a proxy for domestic political disputes and our never-ending culture war.
Make no mistake, it won’t be Obrador’s populist rhetoric or left-leaning governance that brings on such a crisis, it will be the ongoing collapse of civil society in Mexico and Central America. It won’t matter what Obrador says or does, because he will not be in control.