AMLO’s Final Act

AMLO’s Final Act

The Mexican president has built his durable popularity by combining traditionally left- and right-wing policies and positions.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador with the secretaries of defense and the navy at the annual military parade on September 16, 2023, in Mexico City (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

During his five years in office, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, has rarely left the country. But in September 2023, AMLO, as he is commonly known, made a trip to Colombia and Chile, Latin American countries that are also currently governed by the left. In Colombia, AMLO met with President Gustavo Petro and participated in the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs, where Petro called for an end to the failed strategy of “viewing drugs as a military problem and not as a health problem for society.” AMLO said that preserving family unity and combating poverty are essential to that fight.

In Chile, AMLO joined President Gabriel Boric to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the military coup d’état that deposed socialist president Salvador Allende. AMLO, who was nineteen years old at the time, vividly remembers learning about the coup. (Boric, by contrast, was not born until 1986.) At their joint press conference, Boric praised Mexico for providing a haven for thousands of Chileans forced into exile by the resulting dictatorship. AMLO described Allende as “the foreign leader I most admire,” adding, “he was a humanist, a good man, a victim of scoundrels.”

If the goal of the trip was to send a message of unity among left-wing leaders, there were more than a few ironies. AMLO took a military jet in order to avoid the airspace over Peru, where he has been declared a persona non grata after supporting a president who tried and failed to dissolve that country’s Congress in order to stay in power. Petro decried the militarization of the war on drugs, and Boric lamented military intervention in Chilean politics, but AMLO has given Mexico’s military a greater role not only in anti-drug campaigns but in other areas of government. Boric has been outspoken against authoritarianism on the left as well as on the right, while AMLO has held his tongue about autocratic left-wing governments in Cuba and Nicaragua, in the name of respect for sovereignty. But perhaps the greatest irony is that AMLO retains popular support in his country, while Petro and Boric have struggled in theirs.

“President Allende left us many lessons,” AMLO said in Chile. “From him we learned that the best form of achieving a real transformation depends a great deal on the effort we make to awaken civic consciousness—a change in mentality—in our people, not only in one group or a minority but by broad sectors of society, of a majority sufficiently powerful to establish a new social and political order.” This was a painful lesson of Allende’s failure; his share of the vote never comprised a broad majority of Chileans. But AMLO’s does. As he enters his final year in office, his approval ratings remain where they have been for several years: between 60 and 70 percent. At the end of 2023, Petro and Boric both languished in the low thirties.

Still, AMLO’s government has faced considerable criticism at home and abroad, including for perceived democratic backsliding. And many of the problems that are dragging down Petro and Boric also apply to AMLO. Petro has had to deal with corruption accusations against his family members, as has AMLO. Boric has been criticized for his handling of violent crime and immigration, as has AMLO.

But it is AMLO, alone among them, who has built a broad base of support and held it. His party, Morena, appears poised to maintain control of the presidency after he leaves and remain the country’s dominant political force. (Presidents in Mexico serve a single six-year term, without the possibility of reelection.) What AMLO’s legacy means for the left in Latin America is more difficult to say, however. He has built his durable popularity not on the back of exclusively left-wing stances but by combining traditionally left- and right-wing policies and positions. In other words, he has constructed a new political hegemony in Mexico by building an oddly conservative left. As such, Mexican politics has been reconfigured into pro- and anti-AMLO camps, with parts of the left in each, leaving the left without a distinct institutional outlet.

 
The Economy

Mexico, after years of mediocre economic performance, is experiencing significant growth. Remittances from the United States have increased, while nearshoring (the practice of U.S. companies placing manufacturing facilities in Mexico rather than in Asia, to reduce transportation costs) and global pressures to disentangle supply chains from China have produced an influx of foreign investment. The Mexican peso has increased significantly in value over the past two years. Unemployment is at a historic low, poverty has fallen, progressive reforms have expanded labor rights, and increases in the minimum wage have helped grow purchasing power.

AMLO also takes credit for expansions to Mexico’s social programs, but the record is mixed. On the one hand, more Mexicans are covered by some kind of social program than in the years before AMLO took office, and the total amount of spending per recipient has increased. Nevertheless, as a share of GDP, social spending is slightly lower than it was under AMLO’s predecessor, and it remains the lowest among countries in the OECD. The main structural shift under AMLO has been dismantling smaller and often conditional cash-transfer plans in favor of universal old-age pensions and a few other signature programs.

The expansion of a universal pension is a positive development, and many Mexicans who have worked hard for low wages for decades are understandably grateful. But despite the government’s slogan of “for the good of all, the poor first,” a smaller percentage of overall social spending goes to the very poor, and the system has actually lost some progressivity. Data from 2022 shows that the lowest-earning 10 percent receive a smaller share of benefits now than before AMLO took office. More than half of families in extreme poverty do not receive anything at all. Meanwhile, more people in the highest income bracket are receiving social support than before, partly because the major program is based on age rather than income. Although poverty has been mildly reduced, extreme poverty has actually increased.

In the name of anti-corruption and “republican austerity,” AMLO’s government has withheld resources from a number of state institutions. This has created a dire situation in the public-health sector, where, according to the government’s own figures, the number of Mexicans lacking access to healthcare increased from 20.1 million in 2018 to 50.4 million in 2022. A federal plan to provide healthcare remains underfunded and inadequate. The 2024 budget, passed in November, includes an increase in funding for social programs, so the coming election year may bring with it more generosity. But the budget’s major priority was the military, where funding increased more than 130 percent from the previous year.

 
Crime and Violence

The large increase in military funding reflects AMLO’s decision to elevate the armed forces to an institution beyond reproach. It was the conservative president Felipe Calderón who, in his term between 2006 and 2012, first ordered the large-scale involvement of the army in the fight against organized crime. Since then, violence and crime have remained a serious, if geographically uneven, problem for Mexico, and the more the army has intervened, the more violence and crime have increased. On the campaign trail, AMLO promised to unwind this involvement, but in power he has done the opposite. He has given the armed forces a decisive role in a growing number of areas, including the building and administration of large infrastructure projects; the policing of migrants; the control of ports, airports, and customs agencies; and even the operation of a new public commercial airline.

AMLO has justified these actions by appealing to the armed forces’ alleged efficacy, loyalty, and incorruptibility. But, given the hierarchical and secretive nature of military organizations, AMLO’s reliance on the military risks increasing the opaqueness and unaccountability of the Mexican state. According to the political scientist Julio Ríos-Figueroa, Mexico’s armed forces never entirely made the transition to a democratic regime and continue to insist on institutional autonomy. Neither the defense nor the navy ministries are under the command of a civilian, as is customary in other Latin American democracies. They are instead led by high-ranking military officers who often resist reporting on their activities before authorities such as Congress. According to the scholar Sonja Wolf, AMLO has “also expanded the presence, attributions and budgets of the Armed Forces, to the detriment of civilian law enforcement and criminal justice institutions.” Moreover, she writes, “the tasks and resources that are assigned to the Armed Forces tend to be exempt from transparency obligations.” For instance, the National Guard, a new force created as a substitute for the federal police, operates according to military standards as opposed to those of civilian police forces, and most of its members and commanders are military personnel. Army soldiers are routinely involved in human rights violations, such as the recent killing of five unarmed civilians in Nuevo Laredo.

Increased reliance on the military has not led to consistent improvements in public safety. Although there has been a slight reduction in the murder rate (a decline of less than 10 percent), extortion has increased by almost 30 percent, and new criminal organizations have emerged. The official number of missing persons in Mexico is more than 100,000, with some human rights activists estimating that the number might be much higher. According to figures from the National Registry of Disappeared Persons, at the end of 2022 there were 37,600 new missing persons during AMLO’s term, more than in either of the previous two administrations. Given current trends, AMLO’s term will probably be the most violent in Mexico’s modern history.

 
Pluralism

AMLO’s victory in 2018 owed a great deal to the deteriorating public image of the parties previously in power: Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) and Enrique Peña Nieto’s formerly hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PAN’s reputation has been further damaged by the criminal trial of Genaro García Luna, Calderón’s former secretary of public security, who was convicted in 2023 of taking bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel. The PRI, dealing with the fallout of corruption scandals of its own, lost its last stronghold, the governorship of the State of Mexico, in 2023. The creation of Morena also left the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which had once been the standard-bearer of the left, a shell of its former self. The PRD, after trying to maintain a viable “social democratic” option, has now allied with its past right-wing opponents and is on the cusp of disappearing altogether. A newer party that remains outside of AMLO’s coalition, Movimiento Ciudadano, controls a few governorships, but it remains ideologically vague despite using some social democratic rhetoric.

During Mexico’s transition to democracy in the late 1990s—which culminated in the defeat of the PRI in the 2000 election—party leaders on the left and right converged on issues such as fair elections and a liberal-democratic government structure that would include a separation of powers and independent institutions. This model does not appeal to AMLO, which has put him at odds with those institutions and the leaders who came to value them. AMLO has long preferred a “popular democracy” to a liberal one. “Government is the people, organized, and the best government is when the people organize themselves,” he has said, describing a system mediated by a charismatic leader who knows and represents the people’s interests.

AMLO has demonstrated his capacity to mobilize large crowds. More than once, his supporters have filled Mexico City’s central square, the Zócalo, to celebrate him and his government. But last February, the Zócalo filled instead with his critics, marching to defend Mexico’s National Electoral Institute against changes passed by Morena that would restrict the autonomy and capacities of the electoral authority and make it possible for the government’s executive branch to have more influence over elections. The marchers, mostly members of the urban middle and upper classes, hoped to encourage the Supreme Court to annul the changes. AMLO, characteristically, portrayed those who disagreed with him as belonging to the “conservative bloc.” “They used to pretend that there was a difference between the PRI and the PAN,” he said at one of his daily morning news conferences. “And now we know that it isn’t like that. Now they walk together, hand in hand.”

As the end of his term approaches, AMLO has intensified his efforts at centralizing authority and power in the figure of the president, using polarizing language against the opposition, the press, and autonomous election and transparency institutions. To these opponents he has now added the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, which ultimately did reject the electoral reform proposed by his party. AMLO has announced his intention to obtain a legislative majority in 2024 that could amend the Constitution so that judges, magistrates, and ministers would be elected by popular vote. Given AMLO and Morena’s capacity for influencing social mobilization, such a reform would probably amount to an end of the separation of powers.

 
Social Movements

If AMLO’s conception of democracy is an organized people governing themselves, that does not mean that he considers organized people a part of his government. AMLO’s arrival in power came in the wake of intense social mobilizations that formed in response to the deficiencies and limitations of previous democratically elected governments. Many expected that his government would be more responsive to the demands of social movements, even encouraging mobilization as a form of citizen engagement.

Exactly the opposite has occurred. AMLO has been hostile to mobilizations aimed at expanding social inclusivity, and a series of conflicts and clashes have ensued. The president has claimed that social movements are elitist and deceptive. “Instead of helping us,” he has said, “they are blocking us.” AMLO and many of his followers seem to believe that, after the 2018 victory, social mobilization became largely redundant, as the president already gives voice to all relevant popular demands. Or, worse, they believe that such movements deliberately or inadvertently act as allies to his political opponents—los conservadores, a label the president applies to large and divergent sectors of Mexican politics and society that dissent from his policies or oppose his political style. AMLO’s hostility to social movements reveals his discomfort with political pluralism and social autonomy.

Significant social movements have emerged in Mexico in recent decades—for Indigenous peoples, migrants, women, the environment, and victims of crime or violence—as responses to the crises that previous democratic governments failed to address. None have found an answer to their demands under AMLO. The president has clashed with and publicly disparaged them.

Indigenous peoples’ movements have opposed some of the government’s infrastructure projects on ecological and cultural grounds, and in response AMLO has called their members both “conservatives” and “left-wing radicals.” A significant example was El Sur Resiste, an international caravan that toured southern Mexico in protest of AMLO’s signature megaprojects, the Maya Train and the Interoceanic Corridor of Tehuantepec, which the group deemed environmentally unsustainable and socially destructive. (These projects aim to boost, respectively, tourism and international trade in Mexico’s southern states.) In another example, the community leader Samir Flores, who opposed the Proyecto Integral Morelos, a hydro-extractivist megaproject promoted by the Mexican government in association with Spanish companies, was murdered in 2019. Civil society organizations argue that AMLO’s smears of environmental activists helped precipitate his killing. In Chiapas, the Zapatistas have been harassed by paramilitary organizations funded by coffee growers who want to displace the autonomist left group and use its land to get cash resources from Sembrando Vida, one of AMLO’s flagship public policy projects. (Sembrando Vida pays landowners for reforestation efforts, but it has been vulnerable to exploitation by people who clear forested land in order to qualify for the subsidy.)

The Mexican women’s movement has been especially singled out by the president in his daily press conferences. Mexico exhibits alarming levels of violence against women, from street and workplace harassment to sexual abuse, human trafficking, and murder. Rather than heed the movement’s demands to end the exclusion of and discrimination against women, AMLO has instead, after each large public feminist mobilization, questioned the movement’s authenticity and presented it as a tool of his political adversaries. AMLO has repeatedly refused to meet with representatives of movements defending victims of violence, even though many of them, such as the collectives of madres buscadoras (“the searching mothers”), are vulnerable targets of criminal organizations.

The divergence between AMLO and social movements has been epitomized by the current government’s attitude toward the disappearance of forty-three students from a teachers’ school in Ayotzinapa in 2014. As an opposition leader and presidential candidate, AMLO frequently criticized Peña Nieto’s handling of the case. At the time, AMLO aligned himself with the social movements that accused the state, at all levels of authority, of complicity with criminal groups and responsibility for the disappearances. But five years into AMLO’s term, the crime has still not been solved. According to Juanita Goebertus, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, AMLO “has allowed the investigation to stall, seemingly to protect his allies in the military.”

As AMLO’s time in office comes to a close, it has become clearer how his political project has fused a leftist critique of neoliberalism and a number of progressive economic policies with conservative impulses toward moral questions, taxation, and the organization of power. There have been no efforts to truly renew Mexican institutions—other than in ways that centralize power in the presidency—or to mobilize people for any other purpose than to support the president. Attempts to extend the power of the president have succeeded in some areas and been blocked in others. One significant danger is that, through the use of the military, AMLO may be placing important functions of the government beyond the control of future administrations.

In the upcoming elections, in June, Morena has a clear advantage. The party’s candidate will be Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City. Sheinbaum would be Mexico’s first female president (as well as its first president of Jewish descent), and in some ways she is seen as a more modern thinker than AMLO. Sheinbaum has a PhD in energy engineering, and she has written extensively about sustainable development, a concept that AMLO tends to dismiss. But Sheinbaum also lacks AMLO’s unique bond with Mexico’s poor. How much she might depend on him, and how much influence he might retain in a future Morena administration, remain difficult and open questions.

Sheinbaum is likely to have two opponents. Xóchitl Gálvez, a senator from the PAN, represents the anti-populist coalition of the PAN, PRI, and PRD. Gálvez, who is of partially Indigenous descent, can offer a story of triumph over adversity. In public, she speaks in a blunt and sometimes profane manner. Current polling shows Sheinbaum with around 50 percent support, with Gálvez some twenty points behind. Movimiento Ciudadano expects to produce a third candidate, but it is facing a chaotic internal process after the young governor of the northern state of Nuevo León, Samuel García, withdrew from the contest.

For the parts of Mexico’s left that remain committed to AMLO, the choice is easy. But for those with serious reservations about his performance and behavior in office, there is no obvious alternative. A politician as dominant and polarizing as AMLO produces unusual coalitions, and whoever is elected will likely find it difficult to operate a “popular democracy” as a less popular figure. For the left in Mexico, the future will require some degree of building on AMLO’s legacy, some degree of rebuilding what has been lost, and some degree of creating what neither AMLO nor his predecessors could offer: a path toward a more just and inclusive country that does not pass through a single man.


Humberto Beck teaches intellectual history and political theory at El Colegio de México, and is the author of The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought.

Patrick Iber teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is the author of Neither Peace nor Freedom: The Cultural Cold War in Latin America.