A promise by Andrés Manuel López Obrador to tackle rampant corruption has helped propel him to frontrunner status but detractors paint him as an Hugo Chávez-style ‘tropical messiah’
by David Agren in Villahermosa and Tom Phillips in Mexico City
It has been more than three decades since Teresa Jaber sneaked into a clandestine political meeting in this sweltering south-eastern city to watch the man they would come to know as “Amlo” preach revolution.
“I remember him saying: ‘The country cannot go on being the personal property of four of five people,’” said Jaber, recalling that underground gathering in 1987, after which she promptly signed up to his cause.
Before sending his followers out to spread the word, Jaber remembers Amlo offering a final prediction that night. “I am going to be the president of Mexico,” he told them.
Thirty-one years later it appears he may have been right.
With Mexico set to elect its next president on July 1, Amlo – or Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to give him his full name – is in pole position.
Polls give the silver-haired 64-year-old leftist – whose coalition bears the name Together We Will Make History – a commanding lead over his closest rival Ricardo Anaya, a 39-year-old lawyer who is heading a right-left coalition.
The ruling Institutional Revolutionary party’s uninspiring candidate, José Antonio Meade, trails in third.
On the campaign trail, Amlo, who is a friend of Jeremy Corbyn and his Mexican wife, Laura Álvarez, has pledged to wrest back control of the oil industry, explore an amnesty for those involved in Mexico’s devastating drug war, and challenge the country’s powerful and thieving “mafias”.
That last message has found widespread support in a nation outraged and demoralized by jaw-dropping corruption scandals involving its ruling elite.
“López Obrador is the only option,” Margarita García Rodríguez, a homemaker and mother of three, said during a recent Amlo rally in the industrial sprawl that encircles Mexico’s capital.
“If he can’t help us out, then there’s nobody else that can. The whole system will collapse.”
The prospect of a six-year Amlo presidency horrifies his many detractors and foes who paint him as an Hugo Chávez-style authoritarian and “tropical messiah” whose antiquated policies would ruin the Mexican economy.
“He believes in old-fashioned nationalism. Old-fashioned statism. Old-fashioned protectionism. Old-fashioned subsidies across the board,” said Jorge Castañeda, one of Anaya’s two campaign chiefs and Mexico’s former foreign minister.
“Is he a guy who is sufficiently pragmatic and intelligent to understand that you can’t do a lot of these things? Yeah. But what would he do if he could?”
Amlo has sought to assuage such fears by naming a team of highly educated experts as his cabinet and promising business leaders there will be “no expropriations, no nationalizations” if he wins.
He denies claims he is seeking to drag Latin America’s second largest economy back into the past. “If this horror we’re living now is what they want to give us in the future, the past is preferable,” Amlo told one recent rally.
But as the clock ticks down to July’s election, Mexico’s answer to Project Fear is intensifying its operations in a last-ditch bid to thwart Amlo’s push for power.
“This is a guy who is the wrong alternative for Mexico. He is tired, he is old, he is obsolete. He is surrounded by wackos and he has old ideas,” said Castañeda, a key figure in the often apocalyptic-sounding endeavour to derail Amlo’s campaign.
“People don’t go to his rallies or listen or believe in him because he speaks intelligently or eloquently or charismatically. They go because of what he represents – the end of the system.”
Amlo’s story begins in the Tabasco river town of Tepetitán, where he was born in November 1953, the first of seven children. Today, a bust of the town’s most famous son stands outside one of his childhood homes beside a plaque that declares him “El Rostro de la Esperanza” – “The Face of Hope”.
Nicknamed “El Peje” after the pejelagarto, a feisty local fish, Amlo spent his early years playing baseball and tending to his father’s clothing store with his brother José Ramón, who later died after accidentally shooting himself with a revolver.
He became politically active in the late 1970s, moving to Nacajuca, an area north of Tabasco’s capital, Villahermosa, that is home to the indigenous Chontal Maya people, to work as a local representative of the National Indigenous Institute.
“López Obrador took on that role as if it was his destiny, with a missionary’s spirit,” writes José Agustín Ortiz Pinchetti in a flattering new biography of his friend called Amlo: With his Feet on the Ground. “He went to live in a shack just like the ones the indigenous families lived in.”
Pinchetti recalls how during Amlo’s six years in the impoverished region, he and his family slept in hammocks and endured “African temperatures of over 40C” with nothing but a single fan to keep them cool. It was an experience that lit an “inner fire” within the young tabasqueño and made him determined see Mexico ruled for the many not the few.
It also earned Amlo a considerable grassroots following. “Whatever he says, we believe. Whatever he says, he fulfils. He’s a man of his word,” said Glenda Jasso Aquino, a Chontal Maya woman who knew the presidential frontrunner at the time.
“He’s more than a man … He’s going to be president to help his people, the earth, the countryside.”
Jasso remembered Amlo taking on Mexico’s state-run oil company, Pemex, setting up protest camps outside its offices to force it to pay compensation to indigenous communities and campesinos whose lands it had polluted. “Amlo was the only person who raised his voice,” she said.
From Tabasco, Amlo’s political quest eventually took him to the nation’s capital. In 2000 he was elected Mexico City’s mayor vowing to “put the poor first, for the wellbeing of all”.
His administration proved popular: the left has crushed opponents in subsequent Mexico City elections. He subsidized subway fares, provided stipends for senior citizens and single mothers and built elevated expressways. Critics condemned such projects as populism, but promptly copied them in other parts of the country.
“If you look at how he ran Mexico City, he was far from a radical,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics.
As Amlo set about transforming Mexico’s capital, he also began eyeing the ultimate political prize, the presidency. He narrowly lost on his first attempt, in 2006, subsequently and controversially alleging that he had been the victim of electoral fraud and leading a months-long occupation of Mexico City’s political heart. In 2012 he was defeated again.
Since that second setback, Amlo has sought to project a more moderate image – disappointing some longstanding disciples such as Jaber, now a lawyer, who had hoped for a more radical leader. “[He’s] no longer the revolutionary of those years,” she said.
Revolutionary or not, as election day approaches many analysts are convinced Amlo is in an unassailable position, even if one recent poll showed his main rival gaining ground.