On December 1, Andrés Manuel López Obrador celebrated his first anniversary as president of Mexico. Despite ongoing corruption, an increase in drug-cartel-related violence, and a moribund economy, AMLO, as he is known by his countrymen, remains a broadly popular president. Texas Monthly recently caught up with Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and one of the foremost American experts on Mexico and Mexican politics. We discussed AMLO’s impact on Texas as well as the NAFTA deal, migrant camps along the U.S.-Mexico border, and more.
Texas Monthly: To what extent has Texas been affected by the AMLO administration in its first year?
Duncan Wood: I would say the biggest impact is what’s happening in the economy. The AMLO administration has not been successful in generating economic growth. We’re expecting that the final figures for 2019 will be negative growth. [New projections expect 1 percent growth in 2020.] And of course, that has an impact upon Texas in terms of the spending power, of Mexicans who cross the border to make purchases and do the shopping on the Texas side of the border. You speak to local business people and they’re feeling the impact of that. There’s less traffic coming across the border. You’re seeing fewer customers in the malls. And that’s obviously a negative thing.
TM: Despite the economic performance, he remains popular. How do you explain that?
DW: It’s one of the paradoxes of the AMLO administration. He’s not doing well on the economy. He’s not doing well on security. Not doing well on anti-corruption. The energy sector isn’t doing well. And yet he’s still enormously popular. The last poll that was taken by El Financiero newspaper, which was just before Christmas, shows him at 72 percent approval rating. The best way to explain how he’s maintained those very high numbers is that he is an expert communicator. He controls the political agenda of the country on a daily basis through his morning press conferences—the famous mañaneras. The Mexican people feel as though they have an ally, a friend at the top. So there’s still hope among the Mexican people that AMLO will be able to change Mexico for the better.
TM: The Trump administration in many respects also feels they have an ally in AMLO. To what extent does that affect the perception of AMLO among the Mexican people?
DW: There’s a feeling in Mexico that the Trump administration bullies Mexico and the AMLO government. But AMLO is effective in giving out a message to the Mexican people that it’s better to cooperate with the United States than to get into a conflict with them—that his attention should be focused entirely on internal affairs, not on the bilateral relations with the United States. So he wants to avoid conflict at all costs.
TM: To what extent have these migrant encampments caused by Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy influenced Mexican perception of the AMLO administration?
DW: I think at the local level, it’s an important factor; at the national level, less so. At the local level, you see that people are fully aware of the risks associated with these migrant camps. Some people are concerned about migrants who are stuck in these camps. They’re worried about them for public health reasons. They’re worried about them for petty crime. They’re worried about them for the overall image of their communities. But I think the real risk and what we’re seeing is that migrants who are stuck in these camps are actually prey for organized crime groups. And if they’re not prey for the groups, then they are potential recruits for organized crime.
TM: What is going on with regard to the drug cartels and AMLO’s ability to quell the violence?
DW: We’re seeing the breakdown of the established structures of organized crime. And the most recent changes, of course, the weakening of the Sinaloa cartel over in the west of the country and the rise of a very powerful new actor, the Cártel Jalisco Nuevo Generacíon. The extradition of El Chapo to the United States and his conviction means that there are changes taking place in the panorama of organized crime nationwide. What we’re seeing in the northeast of Mexico is that ongoing turf battles are taking place and we are seeing the further fragmentation of existing organized crime groups.
It’s also fluid in terms of the market. We’re seeing an evolution away from, obviously, marijuana as we’ve seen legalization, decriminalization, in the United States. The big thing is synthetic drugs and in particular, fentanyl. As far as government policy, we are still trying to figure out what the Mexican government’s strategy is. This is causing a lot of frustration, not just among analysts, but also among folks within the government who really would like to know what the plan is. We have to emphasize that none of this was caused by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But you need to come up with a strategy that is clearly defined.
TM: Does corruption remain an issue under AMLO?
DW: The president had this lovely phrase while he was campaigning for the presidency. He said once you have an honest president, then corruption will disappear. Obviously, that was never going to be the case. And I am rather fearful that there isn’t a serious approach to fighting corruption within Mexico.
TM: How did AMLO do negotiating the United States-Mexico-Canada [USMCA] trade agreement?
DW: I think he did extremely well. He recognized that this was an existential issue for Mexico. He recognized that without a NAFTA replacement, Mexico’s economy would be in a weaker position. And so he has supported the process 100 percent. The one change that he insisted on during the negotiation process—and this was before he was president—was that the chapter on energy was changed so it didn’t reflect the preferences of the outgoing [Enrique] Peña Nieto administration [which sought more foreign investment]. But he left everything else untouched. And he’s tried to facilitate the ratification process here in the United States as much as possible.
TM: What political pressures can the U.S. exert to provide more benefits to the U.S. overall and Texas in particular?
DW: I think that the United States can in a friendly, collaborative way, push Mexico in the right direction when it comes to economic management and when it comes to providing the right kind of investment climate. In the energy sector, AMLO is very nationalistic. He talks about energy sovereignty. We respect his ideological beliefs, but the United States and Mexico share a common energy future. North America is an energy superpower and Mexico would benefit from having more private investment. And a lot of that private investment could come from the United States.
TM: Is there something the governor of Texas could do to exert his influence to benefit the state?
DW: We need to see a little bit more diplomacy from the Texas government. Diplomacy in the sense of organizing trade missions, diplomacy in the sense of meeting with Mexican governors, by meeting with the next administration. One thing that I would strongly advocate and I say this every year, it’s way overdue for there to be another meeting of the Border Governors Association. [The last meeting was in 2011.] We need to have that meeting take place so that we can begin to discuss cooperation at the subnational level across the border. There hasn’t been a champion to really push this forward. And I think that there’s no better state than Texas to be that champion. I think that Governor [Greg] Abbott should take on that mantle. He has been very vocal recently on questions of immigration. That could be a bit of a problem. But in terms of Texas’s economic prosperity, there is no more important question than what is going to happen with Mexico.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.