In April of this year, I was eating at a restaurant in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula when there was a shooting. Although the local media downplays such occurrences to keep tourism numbers up, they are actually quite common, especially in a large drug market such as Playa. I was sitting there with a date when men fired numerous handgun rounds in an attempted murder only several meters from where we sat. Everyone dove onto the floor and after several seconds of reaction time I did so as well.
Being under fire is not like the movies: it is much more stupid and loud and enraging. Watching the innocent Americans and Europeans cowering defenseless on the floor I realized just how easily that braindead psychopath could have walked in and shot every single one of us dead. A small girl howled with tears, clinging to her mother near the doors to the bathroom as the restaurant slowly returned to life and Mexican police roared up to hunt for the gunmen.
A country where only criminals and police—who sometimes overlap with the criminals—have guns is a very dangerous country indeed!
Mao famously said that all political power “grows out of the barrel of a gun,” but Mexico still goes through the formality of democratic elections and recently held their largest ever on June 6, with its populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—known in Mexico as “AMLO”—coasting on promises he’s made to crack down on cartels and improve the economy for everyone.
The results of the election are unsurprising and show that AMLO’s populist Morena party has retained power and largely proven victorious as expected. Morena took around 200 of the 500 key lower house seats, and with coalition-building should be able to approach 300. However, this is still below the two-thirds that the constitution requires to pass amendments and get things done. It’s worth noting here that official results won’t be certified until late August.
Morena has lost considerable momentum from its apex several years ago, including its former majority in the lower house of Congress. Other powerful parties include the National Action Party (PAN), the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), all of whom are joined up in opposition to AMLO and Morena.
The Mexican midterm elections saw 21,000 municipal and state seats up for grabs in all 32 states, including 500 federal deputies elected to the nation’s lower house of Congress where the key balance of power is often decided. There was also an extremely high participation rate, with over half of Mexicans casting a ballot and 100,000 Mexican National Guard troops deployed to secure the proceedings.
AMLO rode to victory with Morena on a huge wave of support in 2018, promising dramatic economic reforms and an end to the rampant corruption that has plagued the North American nation. Perhaps one insight into how well that’s going is that there have been a stunning 88 murders of political figures in Mexico since September 2020 in the lead-up to this year’s midterms.
With Vice President Kamala Harris headed to Guatemala and Mexico to try to make progress on the border crisis, this is a particularly tense time for U.S.-Mexico relations.
AMLO has previously criticized President Joe Biden for empowering organized crime and human traffickers along the border, calling him the “migrant president” and saying Biden’s previous words on taking office led many poor Mexicans to believe they can get into the U.S. and build a better life.
Images of babies being dropped over the border fence by traffickers caused horror in the United States, as did a video of a young boy abandoned in the desert by “coyotes.” Migrants are also routinely thrown in the river to drown, compelling U.S. Border Patrol to save them. Many illegal immigrants are given a tracking number and required to deposit money they earn into an account to pay back traffickers once they are earning money stateside.
Failure to pay the cartels and traffickers can carry horrendous consequences. As Fox Nation’s excellent reporter Lara Logan has warned, cartels and criminal organizations constitute a “shadow government” in Mexico, and failure to pay them money you owe can result in terrible scenarios. The cartels are capable of almost anything, including cutting out and eating the heart of a rival gang member on video.
There is truly no way to overstate the horrific evil of Mexico’s cartels and traffickers. These organizations are comprised of monstrous narcoterrorists who wage war on rival groups and innocent people across the country. These “animals”—as Donald Trump accurately termed them—extend their murder, terror, and deadly tendrils of fentanyl deep into the United States. They have extensive reach and maintain their own private militias, with foot soldiers whose mind-numbing brutality makes Al Qaeda look tame in comparison.
COVID-19 has hit Mexico pretty hard, although AMLO kept the borders open and has helped the country navigate the economic consequences better than some leaders of other nations. With a popularity still quite high at 60 percent, he’s on track to continue pushing his agenda. AMLO comes at populism more from the left and has criticized the excesses of global capitalism, slamming the “injustice and privileges” of Mexico’s small upper crust and promising reforms that will bring more wealth to the working class.
Mexico is the top trading partner for the United States and AMLO’s leadership has some concerned that he wants to return to a kind of populist strongman rule that’s prevailing in places like Brazil with right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro and under the rule of Salvadoran populist leftist and authoritarian cryptocurrency enthusiast Nayib Bukele.
I’m now in San Cristobal in the more southerly Chiapas state and did some digging around to find out the local mood. Not everybody in Mexico loves AMLO. A young man called Angell Guillén here in San Cristobal tells me he is worried AMLO will take the country down a similar path as Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela by monkeying with the energy sector and trying to gain a stranglehold on it and divert its profits to his inner circle under the guise of limiting free market excess and spreading the wealth. By contrast, an AMLO supporter tells me the folksy leader has cleaned up corruption and is an excellent leader with the country’s best interests in mind.
It’s fair to say that alarmists on both sides tend to over-exaggerate AMLO’s drawbacks and benefits. He hasn’t actually put a serious dent in crime and cartels and he hasn’t turned the economy around as promised, however, AMLO is also not some kind of Mexican Stalin as some seem to believe. He has put some limits on the country’s insanely large bureaucracy and strengthened the military, but he’s far from the revolutionary his supporters seem to hope for.
AMLO’s covering for Mexican General Salvador Cienfuegos, after the former Mexican secretary of state’s arrest on drug trafficking to the U.S. in late 2021, and undermining of DEA agent diplomatic immunity and evidence procedures in Mexico also point to facts that undermine his supposed crusade against the cartels. Ironically, Cienfuegos was at the heart of Mexico’s anti-drug military operations, which should tell you something about just how much the country often resembles the 2001 film Training Day.
In fact, AMLO has consistently interfered in American efforts to crack down on Mexican cartels. He did nothing when these terrorists murdered a family of American Latter-Day Saints in northern Mexico in November 2019—well, to be fair, AMLO did call the horrific murders “regrettable.” Still, AMLO has managed to cultivate an image of being an everyman who relates to common workers and is popular for his no-nonsense way of speaking and the wave of populist energy he created with his formation of Morena in 2014.
The unvarnished truth is that Mexico remains a highly unstable and dangerous country. The latest elections don’t change that, and Democrat Party pandering doesn’t change that.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to the Week, the Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.
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