Is AMLO Guilty? Drug Funding Aligns with Executive Decisions, by Mauro Echeverria

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Key Findings:

  • A January 2024 investigation by the New York-based investigative outlet ProPublica shared a DEA witness account. It asserted that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s 2006 presidential campaign received $2 million from narcos.
  • AMLO’s hugs-not-bullets peace strategy, akin to Gustavo Petro’s tactic in Colombia, has failed to reduce violence. On the contrary, AMLO’s presidential term has had the highest number of homicides in the country’s recorded history.
  • How the alleged narco-funding of AMLO’s 2006 campaign will affect the upcoming election remains an open question. The Morena (ruling party) candidate Claudia Sheinbaum is still the favorite to win the presidency on June 24.

Overview

On January 30, 2024, an investigation by Tim Golden of ProPublica—an investigative journalism outlet—shared that Sinaloa Cartel leader Edgar Valdez Villarreal allegedly donated $2 million in cash to AMLO’s failed 2006 presidential campaign. Golden is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize—one of the highest honors in journalism.

According to the investigation, the DEA started investigating AMLO’s alleged narco funding two years after its main source, Roberto López Nájera, began cooperating with US officials. López Nájera was Valdez’s lawyer at the time of the alleged donation, and he decided to reveal the donation as revenge for Villarreal’s alleged murder of López Nájera’s brother.

In the face of AMLO’s electoral loss by half of a percent in 2006, he and his supporters went to the streets to demonstrate against an alleged fraud. Golden’s investigation reveals López Nájera told the DEA that Valdez also paid for protestors’ meals during these demonstrations.

The “Hugs, Not Bullets” Plan

When he took office in 2018, akin to Gustavo Petro’s total peace security plan in Colombia, AMLO adopted the “hugs, not bullets” (abrazos, no balazos) approach to tackle violence in Mexico. However, it has proved ineffective.

In 2021 the Impunity Observer reported that “The most violent years in Mexico’s modern history were the two first of AMLO’s mandate, 2019 and 2020, with 34,681 and 34,557 murders, respectively.”

AMLO’s presidency has had the largest number of homicides in the country’s history. During his term, there have been more than 160,000 murders. During former presidents Enrique Peña Nieto’s and Felipe Calderón’s terms, there were 156,000 and 120,000 recorded murders, respectively.

In a similar vein, seven out of the world’s 10 most dangerous cities in 2023 were in Mexico, according to a Statista ranking. The three remaining cities in the top 10 belong to the United States, Brazil, and South Africa.

In a February 9 mañanera (AMLO’s daily morning press conferences) AMLO revealed that he disputed former US President Donald Trump’s plan to name Mexican narcos as terrorists. According to the Mexican president, this would have allowed the United States to meddle in the country and violate Mexico’s sovereignty. As a result, Trump opted not to designate Mexican narcos as terrorists.

The Joe Biden-AMLO Relationship

The Joe Biden administration has maintained an amicable relationship with the Mexican government despite having contradictory perspectives on issues such as the US fentanyl crisis. In 2019, 36,300 Americans died of fentanyl overdoses. In 2022, the number of fentanyl-related deaths increased to 73,600, doubling in three years.

While US officials claim that Mexico’s narcos such as the Jalisco New Generation and Sinaloa Cartels are fentanyl producers, AMLO has stated that there “is no fentanyl consumption nor production in Mexico.” The DEA specifies Mexican cartels “are producing increased quantities of fentanyl and illicit fentanyl-containing tablets … [with] increasingly sophisticated clandestine laboratories and processing methods.”

In the last two years, Biden and US officials have met with AMLO and Mexican officials on multiple occasions to discuss the most pressing issues of both countries. These include illegal migration, narcotrafficking, people smuggling, and transnational criminal organizations.

In the latest meeting between the presidents on November 17, 2023, Biden showed his “appreciation” for AMLO. This was despite the failed “hugs, not bullets” strategy in Mexico and the brutal fentanyl crisis in the United States. According to the White House, AMLO has made a “full commitment to confront this [fentanyl] challenge through domestic efforts.”

On January 19 Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Alicia Bárcena met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss how to reduce illegal migration from Mexico to the United States and promote bilateral cooperation. Bárcena contended, “The US-Mexico relationship has never gone through such a positive moment as right now.”

What AMLO, His Team Have to Say

According to Golden’s investigation, Mexican government spokesman Jesús Ramírez Cuevas “did not respond to numerous requests for comment” before ProPublica published it. When the article was live and republished on multiple prominent media outlets such as France 24Deutsche Welle, and El País, AMLO and Mexican officials decided to address the piece.

During multiple mañaneras, he has criticized and sought to discredit Golden’s investigation. For example, on January 31—one day after ProPublica posted the investigation—AMLO characterized the piece as “slander” and “completely false.” He also said the investigation was timed to precede the US and Mexican elections in 2024.

On February 8, despite slamming the investigation, AMLO contended that the piece did not affect his government. Further, he asserted that his government does not limit freedom of expression. That is hardly solace to those living in a nation mired in murder. In 2022 Mexico had the largest number of murdered journalists in Latin America: 11. Haiti and Colombia were next with seven and four, respectively.

On February 6, Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Bárcena contended in a press conference that “the United States already closed the case [of alleged AMLO’s narco-funding in 2006].” She added that US officials failed to find AMLO guilty. She also sought to discredit Golden’s investigation by saying he merely dusts off old DEA cases to write his articles.

Will This Affect Mexico’s Presidential Election?

On June 24 Mexico will hold its presidential election for the 2024–2030 term. Although polls suggest the ruling party is likely to retain power, the opposition are rallying together.

Since 2022, the AMLO administration has faced stiff opposition on the streets and in academia due to attempts to modify the country’s electoral authority. In the latest peaceful demonstration on February 18, participants demanded free and fair elections, and the majority of demonstrators opposed AMLO. The protest did not belong to any political party but was planned by independent civil-society organizations.

Further, politicians across the Mexican spectrum have joined forces to face the ruling party’s presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum. In November 2023 three of Mexico’s historical parties—PRI, PAN, and PRD—confirmed an alliance to face Sheinbaum. Social-democrat Xochitl Gálvez will be the opposition candidate.

How the alleged narco funding of AMLO’s electoral campaign will affect the upcoming election is unclear, perhaps on account of desensitized voters. Despite the allegation, Sheinbaum remains the favorite. She has a 25–35 percent lead over the opposition candidate. That is according to multiple independent pollsters such as Simo.

This allegation could easily be the tip of the iceberg of illicit funds going to AMLO and his campaigns. He is far from the only socialist politician in the region accused of receiving drug money for electoral campaigns or of having drug-cartel backing. Ecuadorian ex-President Rafael Correa, Colombian President Gustavo Petro, and Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro are a few examples. In March 2020 a New York court charged the latter with narcoterrorism and is offering a $15 million reward for information that leads to his capture.

Mauro Echeverría
Mauro Echeverría is Econ Americas’ deputy editor. He holds a BA in international relations with minors in political science and anthropology from the San Francisco University of Quito. Mauro leads the research on local economic development at the Ecuadorian think tank Libre Razón.

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