In 2018, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) won a landslide victory in Mexico’s presidential election, and his leftist Morena Party won a large majority in Congress. AMLO and Morena campaigned on a populist platform that promised a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the other three being Mexican Independence, the Liberal Reformation, and the Revolution); this Fourth Transformation would, they claimed, eliminate historic government abuse and tackle widespread government corruption. Now, more than halfway through AMLO’s six-year term, the credibility of that anticorruption rhetoric has dramatically faded. Not only has AMLO’s government failed to deliver on his promise to usher in a new era of clean government, but in many respects his administration has been moving in the wrong direction.
Understanding the ways in which AMLO’s approach to governance has undermined rather than strengthened Mexico’s fight against corruption is crucial to getting the country back on track. Four problems with the AMLO regime’s approach to anticorruption are especially significant:
- First, AMLO has weakened Mexico’s highly regarded National Anticorruption System (NAS) by failing to provide it with adequate funding, infrastructure, and political support. The NAS, which was created in 2016 as part of an ambitious package of significant constitutional reforms, is a multimember entity tasked with coordinating anticorruption efforts at both the Federal and State levels. The NAS has an innovative structure: It is headed by a citizen-led Coordinating Committee, and involves a wide array of stakeholders from the three branches of government and civil society. The NAS has been responsible for some important reforms, including the establishment of a Special Prosecutor’s Office for Combating Corruption and the creation of special anticorruption Magistrates in the Federal Tribunal of Administrative Justice. Most of the animosity towards the NAS has been fueled by the ongoing feud between AMLO and anticorruption NGOs that have been persistently accused by the Mexican President of conspiring against him and his government. Regrettably, AMLO and his political allies in the Senate have left many high-level NAS positions vacant. Relatedly, AMLO recently decided to close the special anti-narcotics unit that has worked alongside the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for a quarter-century to tackle narcotics and organized crime. Although not directly part of the NAS, the special unit played an influential role in combating drug cartels, which are one of the most significant driving forces behind Mexican corruption.
- Second, AMLO’s administration has undermined the independence and integrity of the Attorney General position. Although a 2019 constitutional reform guaranteed the AG a high degree of institutional independence, AMLO’s pick for AG, Alejandro Gertz Manero, has weaponized the Prosecutors Office to advance AMLO’s political agenda, inducing politically motivated investigations against anyone who stands against the President’s goals, and following AMLO’s cues about how to handle high-profile corruption cases. Moreover, Gertz Manero has recently been involved in an egregious personal scandal in which he allegedly abused his power in an intra-family dispute. Unfortunately, AMLO has continued to defend Gertz Manero, thereby demonstrating AMLO’s prioritization of political loyalty above all else.
- Third, although building a strong anticorruption system requires strengthening institutional checks and balances, AMLO has done the opposite. AMLO has stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists who will support his agenda, and he has attacked and undermined independent accountability entities such as the highly respected National Electoral Institute. AMLO seems to be on a mission to consolidate Morena’s position as the ruling party for the indefinite future—and such one-party rule is an anathema to a genuine anticorruption agenda.
- Fourth, although a centerpiece of AMLO’s anticorruption rhetoric was his promise to “lead by example,” this promise has been repeatedly undercut by scandals implicating his family members and political allies. During AMLO’s three-plus years in office, both his son and his brother have been subject to serious allegations of corruption and conflict of interests. Several members of AMLO’s inner circle have also been involved in acts of corruption. Yet AMLO has avoided addressing these allegations directly; instead, he attacks the journalists who report on these allegations and asserts that the accusations are part of a plot by his political enemies.
In light of all this, AMLO’s pledge in his inaugural address to put a “final period” in the long story of Mexico’s systemic corruption now rings hollow. Instead of ushering in a Fourth Transformation, the AMLO administration has turned out, despite his fiery populist rhetoric, to be a continuation of business as usual. AMLO has almost three more years in office, so there is still time to turn things around if he wants to. But what we have seen so far gives little reason to hope that the state of affairs in the Mexican government will be any different while AMLO and his party remain in charge.