MEXICO CITY — The last two times he ran for president, he held strong to the ideology that his base ascribed to. During his third and final run, he conceded to the old-school gatekeepers of Mexico — and won.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s constituency forgave his contradictions and swept him, overwhelmingly, to victory. In that way, he is a lot like his US counterpart, President Donald Trump, who promised to “drain the swamp” but instead brought the swamp with him.
López Obrador, or AMLO, as he is popularly known, had been expected to win with 50% of the vote in the polls. Now that he’s been granted the most powerful mandate of any president in this country’s history, he will have to confront a deeply hostile US president fixated on a contentious border wall and the domestic economy. A relationship between the two leaders will be unavoidable, with the two countries’ economies, public safety challenges, and, in many cases, families inextricably intertwined on a daily basis, and also likely marked by tension.
His primary focus, however, will be on reducing corruption at home, giving jobs to farmers, and drafting a “moral constitution,” a kind of roadmap for Mexicans to find true happiness, López Obrador has said.
“We’re going to have two presidents looking inward,” said Celia Toro, expert on international relations at El Colegio de México. “Uncertainty is today’s defining feature,” added Toro.
But hours after the initial results were announced, Trump sent an olive branch.
“Congratulations to Andres Manuel López Obrador on becoming the next President of Mexico. I look very much forward to working with him. There is much to be done that will benefit both the United States and Mexico!” he tweeted.
As the two countries try to save a bruised relationship, Mexicans will be adjusting to López Obrador’s victory — a watershed moment for Mexico, upending the political status quo established in 1929 in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and ushering in a four-year-old leftist, anti-establishment party with little governing experience, and whose outsized leader has promised to transform the country “radically.”
His rise to power after two failed attempts at the presidency is widely seen as a response not to Trump but to sweeping, profound frustration with a political system that has proven itself rotten to the core with corruption and with levels of violence not seen since records began in 1997. His overwhelming victory has shrunk the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was synonymous with Mexico for nearly a century — and López Obrador’s political starting point.
López Obrador, who was born into a middle-class family in one of Mexico’s poorest states, Tabasco, has promised to end official corruption, though his vague proposals are founded on his own honesty. He has vowed to cut his salary in half, open the official presidential residence to the public as a cultural center, and live in a modest, rented house. He has also said he will not use the presidential guard, the army unit in charge of safeguarding the president, and has vowed to hold a referendum on his performance every two years.
But he also brought into his inner circle multimillionaire Alfonso Romo; a former mining union boss, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, who had gone on the lam after being accused of stealing $55 million from workers; and various members of Elba Esther Gordillo’s family. Gordillo is a former teachers’ union boss, currently under house arrest on embezzlement charges.
This seismic change in Mexico’s political structure comes at a time when relations with the US are especially fragile, with Trump’s disparaging comments igniting a unified demand for respect among Mexicans — and creating a highly unpredictable scenario for two neighbors who, until Trump’s ascent to power, had a long, stable relationship characterized by robust cooperation.
Forging a successful relationship with Trump may become one of López Obrador’s biggest hurdles.
The strategy to “make Donald Trump respect Mexico,” Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexico ambassador to the US, told BuzzFeed News, “is doomed to fail.” Trump’s view of Mexico is “first and foremost a personal issue, turbocharged by political-electoral expediency,” he added.
“Arrogant” and a “show-off” are some of the words López Obrador has used to describe Trump in recent months — though he, like the other candidates, mentioned Trump only a handful of times during the campaign period.
Standing on a podium at a political rally in January, López Obrador made a reference to Trump’s border wall, saying that under his administration, investment in agriculture and a job creation scheme will keep people from going abroad. “Trump, or whoever is there, will come asking for Mexicans to go pick their crops,” he said forcefully.
Whatever tension could emerge between the two leaders, history and geography will leave them no choice but to find common ground.
“There’s no other relationship where we have this degree of day-to-day effect on people’s lives on both sides of the border,” former US ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne told BuzzFeed News, noting that the US and Mexico trade $1 million per minute.
“It’s a marriage,” said Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American studies at the US Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. “It can be a good one or a bad one, but at the end of the day the US and Mexico are still wed.”
The main point of contention, analysts agree, will be the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump has argued that the 24-year-old treaty between the US, Mexico, and Canada — the last of which has more than tripled its trade with the US since the agreement took effect — has been unfair to the United States. López Obrador, who has already handpicked a former World Trade Organization economist to take the reins of the negotiation, is keen on reaching a deal rather than withdrawing, like Trump has threatened to do.
That doesn’t mean he’s not willing to walk away if the agreement is not improved.
Gerardo Esquivel, López Obrador’s economic adviser, told Bloomberg earlier this year that they would prefer to avoid confrontations with the US but they “want a NAFTA 2.0, not a NAFTA 0.5.”
Migration, in the spotlight in the US in recent months, will be one of the most complex issues for both countries. Mexico has invested significant resources into strengthening its southern border and ramping up detentions and deportations of Central Americans following a surge of illegal border crossings by unaccompanied minors into the US in 2014. Then, as now, they were fleeing gang violence and high homicide rates in Honduras and El Salvador, and extreme poverty in Guatemala.
Cooperation has been growing since: The US Department of Homeland Security has been collecting immigrants’ fingerprints and ocular scans from within detention facilities in southern Mexico and the capital city, according to an April report by the Washington Post.
A defiant López Obrador announced during the second presidential debate in May that Mexico would no longer “continue doing their dirty work for them” and that he would establish a National Migration Institute in Tijuana. “There’s a whole justification for this,” he said, suggesting that his administration would not be as keen on detaining Central American migrants.
Analysts are skeptical it will be an effective bargaining chip for López Obrador.
“Trump has cared absolutely nothing for the work Mexico has done to stem the flow of migrants,” Raúl Zepeda Gil, professor of international relations at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, told BuzzFeed News.
Any fallout of rolling back the current strategy could land on Mexico. Cities along the US border have already been feeling the pressure of surging immigrant populations as families are deciding to stay put on the Mexican side while they wait in the hopes that Trump will soften his policy.
López Obrador will also have to rule a country mourning at least 136,000 people murdered during his predecessors’ administration and facing the tightening grip over oil pipelines by criminal groups all across the country. Amid the few concrete security proposals he made during his campaign, López Obrador floated the idea of granting amnesty to criminals.
That is unlikely to be well-received by Trump, who launched his campaign in 2015 by accusing Mexico of sending “rapists” and criminals across the border.
López Obrador’s amnesty proposal was highly controversial in Mexico, particularly among victims of crime, but his hands will be further tied by Trump, especially if crime continues to grow: The Mexican government still uses intelligence gathered by US law enforcement in Mexico to catch some of its most wanted criminals.
“We need it; the Americans are happy. He’s not going to kick the DEA, the FBI, out of Mexico overnight,” said Toro, adding that it is likely that these deals continue without Trump or López Obrador commenting on them publicly — and risking having to sever them if they get caught up in a Twitter spat.
The tone of the relationship will likely be set in the coming days by Trump’s early outreach. “Will he call or not call? And if he does, what will he say?” wondered Toro.
There’s another possible scenario, she said: Trump could do it his way and let the world in on how he plans to approach this new relationship.
And he did.
Emily Tamkin contributed reporting from Washington, DC, and Steve Fisher from Mexico City.