By David Raby, crossposted from PUBLIC READING ROOMS
In Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has insisted from the beginning that his Fourth Transformation (4T) will be peaceful and democratic. Even while courting criticism by using the military for assistance in delivering social programmes and public works, and setting up a National Guard with military direction (for the first five years) for public security, he has nevertheless gone to remarkable lengths to avoid using violence or repression except against hardened criminals. Indeed, even against organised crime he has prioritised intelligence over brute force.
Opposition Governors are Brought to Heel
The opposition, which has coalesced in recent months around a group of conservative and/or corrupt State Governors, tried to take advantage of this by focussing on problems of organised crime and implying that AMLO is neglecting the problem. They have also used his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on persuasion rather than compulsion for public compliance, to criticise federal policy and use coercion to promote an image of strength in their own states.
One key area of opposition strength is the west-central Bajío region including the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Colima. It is also an area where organised crime is very active: the major drugs gang at the moment is the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), and a rival outfit, the Cartel Santa Rosa de Lima, is based in Guanajuato. As I explained in a previous article1, these cartels have recently been involved in several spectacular acts of violence which the media regard as a serious challenge to AMLO´s public security strategy.
The governors of these states gave the impression of wanting to pursue the old strategy of hard-line confrontation with the cartels, a policy which had led to much innocent blood being shed under President Felipe Calderón of the PAN (2006-12). At the same time there is widespread suspicion that they may in fact have corrupt links to the very cartels they claim to combat, and indeed Calderón himself is now under suspicion in this regard.
This scenario is potentially explosive and quite dangerous for the President and his staff. It therefore came as something of a surprise when AMLO decided to visit Michoacán on June 26th, accompanied by his Secretary of Defence, General Sandoval; and then from July 15th to 17th (after his crucial trip to Washington) to visit Guanajuato, Jalisco and Colima, accompanied in all cases by General Sandoval and other members of his defence and security team. More recently he has visited other states with opposition governors in the North-West (Nayarit, Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California Sur).
These visits included AMLO´s all-important morning press conferences (mañaneras) where he and members of his staff make announcements and field questions for about two hours on end. In each of the states in question, the State Governor also attended and was obliged to speak and answer questions alongside the President and his security team.
It was clear in all cases that the Governors were far from comfortable with the situation. They all expressed some disagreements with the President but were obliged to accept his insistence on dialogue and collaboration, and indeed to publicly accept working together on security strategy as laid down by the Federal Government.
AMLO tours the Bajío
In Michoacán, Governor Silvano Aureoles of the PRD (originally a left-wing party but profoundly affected by corruption) had directly criticised the role of the National Guard and the Armed Forces in general in public security. But given the poor record of his state in crime and public order, he was visibly nervous in the presence of AMLO and his security chiefs. Similarly, when questioned by journalists about eliminating excess and waste in his administration (as AMLO has done with great determination), Aureoles attempted to justify his record with dubious assertions.2 He also appears to have close links to a prominent opposition online media platform, Latinus, which has been very active in attacking the President and the 4T Transformation;3 again, the Michoacán Governor was obliged to offer rather unconvincing denials of this.
Even more telling was the Guanajuato meeting on July 15th, in which the Governor, Diego Sinhué Rodríguez of the right-wing PAN, was forced to admit the error of his ways. AMLO has daily meetings of his security team at 6 am (before the 7 am press conferences), and all state governors are encouraged to participate online, but Governor Sinhué in December 2019 publicly refused to do so.
On July 15th Sinhué declared that he had changed his mind and had begun to participate ten days earlier, and had agreed to accept federal security strategy “for the sake of the security of the guanajuatenses”4 (the state’s appalling homicide rate made the need for this patently obvious). Sinhué (who is nearing the end of his term), along with his PAN predecessors, is widely suspected of collusion with organised crime and thus of direct responsibility for the violent chaos in Guanajuato, but it seems he has now met his match.
The next day, July 16th, a similar drama was played out in Jalisco, home to Mexico’s second city Guadalajara and with another right-wing governor, Enrique Alfaro of the “Citizens’ Movement”. Alfaro is regarded as the unofficial leader of the alliance of some 10 or 11 opposition governors, and had openly challenged the President some six weeks earlier over problems of popular protests and repression in Jalisco.5
The tension at this press conference was palpable, and there was a thinly-veiled confrontation in the speeches of AMLO and Governor Alfaro. But it was Alfaro who looked nervous and was visibly sweating, and who was directly challenged not just by the President but by several journalists, including two brave young women from local media who confronted him over repression by state forces. Despite his hostile attitude Alfaro was forced to recognise the need for change in the state Attorney-General’s office and to accept federal investigations into human rights issues.6
The third governor to be put on the spot in this remarkable presidential tour was José Ignacio Peralta of Colima, a small Pacific coast state bordering on Jalisco and home to Manzanillo, Mexico’s largest port. On July 17th Governor Peralta, like his colleagues in Guanajuato and Jalisco, expressed differences with the President over some issues, but equally had to accept federal security policy.
But the biggest blow for Peralta came when AMLO announced that administration of all of the country’s ports was being taken over by the Navy in order to end smuggling and corruption, and that customs administration was also being completely overhauled at all ports of entry, maritime, terrestrial and air. “Who ran the customs?” asked AMLO rhetorically: “The politicians!”, and he explained how running the customs service of a port had been a handy money-spinner for many sleazy operators.7 Peralta (a member of the PRI) put on a brave face as he tried to hide his discomfort.
Recent events have further vindicated AMLO’s intelligence-led security strategy and demonstrated the vulnerability of corrupt governors. On August 2nd the boss of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, El Marro, was captured along with five associates in a skilful operation headed by a military Special Forces unit, with scarcely a shot being fired.8Although for both legal and political reasons members of the State Attorney’s office took part, the key to the operation was intelligence coordinated by AMLO’s security chief Alfonso Durazo.
In terms of military force no chances were taken, with 120 Special Forces personnel and another 120 federal troops engaged in the operation, but the decisive action which involved the simultaneous seizure of four of the Cartel’s “safe houses” produced only one casualty, one of El Marro’s bodyguards who was wounded in the leg. A similar operation under previous administrations would probably have featured troops going in with all guns blazing and dozens of casualties, many of them innocent. El Marro was held at a State Penitentiary for initial interrogation and then transferred four days later, under heavy guard, to a Federal Gaol in Mexico State.
Members of the PAN in the Federal Congress initially tried (on Twitter) to credit their colleague Governor Diego Sinhué with the operation, but they were so ill-informed that they confused El Marro with the boss of the rival Jalisco Cartel, El Mencho. More important, as pointed out by independent journalists, is that Sinhué had five years to deal with El Marro and had done nothing, presiding over the near-quadrupling of homicides in Guanajuato from 600 in 2015 to 2,261 in 2019.9
Even ex-Presidents are No Longer Safe
Of course Mexican governments always claimed to combat corruption, but it is significant that under President Carlos Salinas in 1994 corruption ceased to be classified as a “serious crime” under the criminal code; and as AMLO pointed out, the “Anti-Corruption Institute” subsequently created was “pure simulation”.10 Under the present administration it has once again been classified as a serious crime. The national anti-corruption campaign has advanced dramatically in the last two months on the legal front, with prominent former politicians and officials facing charges from the Attorney-General’s office (Fiscalía) and/or being sought for extradition back to Mexico from the US, Spain and Canada.
Such extraditions would have been almost inconceivable until recently when it was only Mexicans who were extradited (usually to the US), but the strengthening of judicial independence and the rule of law, and the forging of a relationship of mutual respect and institutional cooperation with the US and other powers has transformed the situation. With a Fiscal-General, Alejandro Gertz Manero, of unquestioned integrity and a remarkably efficient and professional Foreign Secretary in Marcelo Ebrard, AMLO´s Government is gaining unprecedented international respect and practical results.
The most spectacular case is that of former PEMEX boss Emilio Lozoya, who spearheaded the privatising “Energy Reform” under President Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI (2012-18) and who has just been extradited to Mexico from Spain.11 Subject to serious corruption charges himself, he has been given the status of “collaborating witness” subject to reduced penalties in return for spilling the beans on gross corruption at the highest level.
Also spectacular, and potentially devastating for the old regime of the PRI and PAN parties, is the case of Genaro García Luna, head of security under President Calderón and currently on trial in New York on corruption and narcotics charges. The case against García Luna has advanced rapidly due to cooperation by the Mexican authorities, and seems likely to implicate Calderón himself in responsibility for collusion with the Sinaloa Cartel.
Other cases that have come to light recently are that of the former Governor of Chihuahua State, César Duarte of the PRI, under arrest in Florida on corruption charges and now requested in extradition by Mexico; and that of the former head of Mexico’s Criminal Investigation Agency, Tomás Zerón de Lucio, under suspicion in relation to the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre of 43 students, and currently living in Canada.
Returning to the case of Emilio Lozoya, he was detained in Málaga, Spain in February 2020 on an Interpol warrant after being on the run for some time; five months later his extradition was approved and he arrived back in Mexico on July 17th. He is in hospital in the State of Mexico but under arrest and has already made formal declarations to the Fiscalía,12 relating in particular to the notorious Odebrecht scandal in which the Brazilian engineering firm of that name has been shown to have bribed politicians in several Latin American countries.
Mexico was one of the few countries where the Odebrecht affair had not yet caused heads to roll, but Lozoya has revealed million-dollar payments which he says were used to finance Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012 election campaign and to bribe Mexican Congress members to pass the privatising “Energy Reform” in 2014. His testimony includes colourful details about huge amounts of cash held in safes at a house in the luxury Lomas de Chapultepec district and handed over in person to politicians for their cooperation. His revelations also relate to purchase by PEMEX of a fertiliser plant at a highly inflated price (some $200 million US above market value).13
In all these cases AMLO has insisted on the independence of the Fiscalía, unlike the former Procuraduría which was subordinate to the President. Due legal process must be followed, but what matters is (1) that the truth be known; (2) there must be punishment and not impunity; and (3) the proceeds of crime must be recovered as far as possible for the benefit of the nation.14
Worst of all, in AMLO’s view, was the cynical attitude which predominated, assuming that no politician worth his salt would fail to profit from office, and that even those few who were convicted of graft did not lose their respectability. This cynicism was accompanied by the offensive view that corruption was part of Mexican culture, an idea that AMLO rejects vehemently.
An entire corrupt system is on trial
So far those on trial or under arrest and interrogation are former ministers or secretaries of state, or bosses of institutions like PEMEX, which is already an indictment of corruption at high level. But the most prominent cases now under way are a direct threat to two ex-presidents, Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto. At present Peña Nieto has not said a word, but Calderón has been very vocal both in general political attacks on AMLO and in claiming that he is subject to political persecution. But as AMLO has pointed out more than once, if Calderón feels aggrieved he should complain to the judge in New York, since the evidence against him comes primarily from the trial of García Luna, his former Secretary of Public Security now detained in a high-security prison in Brooklyn and implicated in receiving multi-million-dollar bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel.
As things stand the Constitution prevents putting ex-presidents (or the serving President) on trial except for High Treason or “serious crimes”; AMLO tried to remove this immunity but Congress did not accept the reform. It may well be that evidence emerging in the García Luna and Lozoya cases might establish a legal basis for charges of “serious crimes” against these two ex-presidents; there is good reason to suspect that both of them were up to their necks in sleaze and graft, and many of AMLO’s popular supporters would love to see them in gaol.
But the implementation of such verdicts would threaten the entire pre-2018 political establishment and could well precipitate a dramatic confrontation. AMLO is well aware of this and has repeatedly declared that he is not in favour of punishing ex-presidents: the facts should be known, their guilt should be established before the court of public opinion, “but we do not want to set the country on the road to rupture” and “we are not going to persecute anyone”.15 What is at stake is a matter of policy, to expose corruption through due legal process, to ensure that it is seen as unacceptable and that it will not occur again. If a legal case against any ex-president is to be brought, AMLO argues there should be a popular vote on whether to go ahead, and says that he himself would oppose such action although he would respect the result of a vote.
This however does not mean abandonment of serious legal investigations, and in his August 14th press conference AMLO made it clear that if they are implicated by Lozoya’s testimony, both Peña Nieto and Calderón should be required to testify, even if only in writing. Moreover, their testimony should be made public because it is “a matter of State” that the full sordid truth be known in order to banish corruption in future. Furthermore, such investigations should not be limited to the last two presidents but should apply to all holders of the supreme office in the neoliberal period, starting with Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94).16
The stakes are very high, not least because in the meantime the 4T Transformation continues and positive achievements are announced almost every week: a coordinated plan for schools to resume classes very soon but through distance education, including a formal agreement for the major private TV channels to help by showing public educational programmes arranged with the Education Ministry; control of the ports and the customs administration by the Navy to end corruption there; guaranteed Mexican access to a Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca on a not-for-profit basis, with Mexico and Argentina responsible for manufacture and distribution throughout Latin America; and creation of a single public agency for purchase and distribution of all pharmaceuticals.
David Raby is a writer, political activist and retired academic living in Norwich, UK. Professor Emeritus in Latin American History, University of Toronto, Canada; former Senior Fellow in Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool (UK). Former City Councillor in Norwich. Executive member, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign; Chair, Norfolk & Norwich El Viejo (Nicaragua) Twinning Link. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @DLRaby.
5 See my article “Strategy & Tactics in Mexico’s Transformation” in www.prruk.org
9 La Jornada, 03/08/2020.
12 El Universal, 30 jun. 2020, “Emilio Lozoya acepta extradición de España a México”, www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqUCPOhXbuA