Three months after taking office, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is known, is enjoying a double success. His popularity is 65 to 85 percent, depending on the poll. And his proposed reforms are gaining political traction. This “honeymoon” might be normal in many democracies. Mexico, however, is hardly normal these days.
Among other woes, its murder rate keeps setting record highs. The flow of migrant “caravans” from Central America is causing conflict with the United States and inside Mexico. And widespread theft of gasoline from pipelines, which was harming the energy sector, needs an urgent response.
Many Mexicans are hopeful about AMLO’s reforms, which include better social programs and the creation of new job and education opportunities for young people. His broader goal is to achieve social reconciliation and pacification of high-crime areas as well as a quenching of what he calls a “thirst for justice” after more than a decade of increased violence.
Much of his success can be attributed to his transparency. Five days a week AMLO holds a meeting on public security at 6 a.m. and then a televised press conference at 7 a.m., during which he delivers messages about reforms under way and responds to journalists’ wide-ranging questions. Mexicans clearly appreciate his open, down-home communication.
To address immediate needs, the leftist leader has dispatched security forces to places hit particularly hard by organized crime and oil theft. Last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved his controversial proposal for a hybrid military-police force, or “National Guard,” although only after adding measures to ensure civilian control. AMLO promises the force will be trained to honor human rights. The measure must still be approved by a majority of state legislatures, which is expected.
To ensure a National Guard can reduce crime, it must have enough training, numbers, and resources. Such a federal force is required as state and local police are notoriously corrupt. Eventually better local policing and an improved justice system will still be needed. Much work lies ahead to realize AMLO’s vision of a peaceful landscape that addresses past injustices and prevents new ones.
On migration, AMLO seeks to integrate the economies of southern Mexico and the northern tier of Central America. He wants new infrastructure, such as a regional train in the Yucatán Peninsula, and more private investment to create jobs. The hope is that those people thinking of migrating would instead find security and employment, allowing them to stay in the region. In the interim, he proposes that migrants from Central America arrive in a regularized fashion with their rights respected and humanitarian needs met, as well as be able to work.
The short-term challenges are enormous. Mexico’s immigration services are woefully inadequate. In addition, the country must deal with a US administration less tolerant of irregular migration. The US plans to send more and more migrants seeking asylum back to Mexico to wait for their cases to be judged. Mexico is struggling to care for them. Because of its dependence on trade with the US and a reliance on US investment, Mexico wants to avoid a public clash with the Trump administration.
With his broad vision, transparent approach, and strong public support, AMLO is off to a good start. He faces serious challenges in the energy sector and in winning the confidence of international and Mexican investors. Yet given Mexico’s many troubles, the momentum deserves some celebration.