US officials ignore Mexican democracy at their own peril, says opposition candidate

Mexican Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez
Greg Nash
Mexican Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez is interviewed at The Hill’s newsroom in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.

Mexico’s opposition presidential candidate says U.S. officials are missing the mark on bilateral relations, too focused on migration and fentanyl ahead of the November elections and ignoring the consequences of democratic decline south of the border.

Xóchitl Gálvez, who leads a motley opposition coalition ahead of Mexico’s June vote, warned that the Biden administration is essentially looking the other way as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is barred from running for reelection, dismantles the country’s democratic institutions.

“They don’t care about anything other than migration and fentanyl. That’s why I came to say, ‘realize that in Mexico there is a problem with democracy,'” Gálvez told The Hill in a wide-ranging interview this week.

Her visit to Washington and New York came in the wake of three media reports that allege drug money fueled López Obrador’s 2006 campaign. He lost in 2006 and 2012 before handily winning the 2018 election.

The reports detailed how U.S. officials deemed the investigations too risky and pulled the plug months before the 2012 vote.

López Obrador repudiated the reports as baseless political attacks and an attempt at foreign intervention. 

A day later, President Biden held a call with López Obrador thanking him for “Mexico’s operational support and for taking concrete steps to deter irregular migration while expanding lawful pathways,” according to a White House readout of the call.

The tensions followed by appeasement are developing into a pattern in Biden’s dealings with López Obrador, who has positioned himself as a key player in limiting migration flows to the United States.

According to Gálvez, the focus on keeping López Obrador cooperative on migration is already costing the United States in other areas.

“They reduce it to two problems, migration and fentanyl. Those are the two issues they worry about in Mexico. They think President López Obrador controls migratory flows for them,” she said.

“I’ll tell you — they haven’t even been able to defend U.S. companies who were violated by the Electric Industry Law, which excluded them from the market, stopped buying electricity from them, made them lose millions of dollars because it didn’t connect them to the national electric grid despite the fact that they had all the permits.”

Gálvez was referencing one of López Obrador’s early priorities, returning electrical generation to full state control — with heavy reliance on fossil fuels — after decades of liberalization prompted major foreign investments in clean energy.

López Obrador’s chosen successor, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, is among his most loyal followers and is expected to deliver continuity if elected.

Gálvez, an underdog in the race, said López Obrador’s most recent governmental proposals should raise big concerns.

“The legislative proposals for a constitutional reform that the president presented this last Feb. 5 are an attack against the separation of powers,” she said.

López Obrador on Monday proposed a wide-ranging series of reforms, including one to slash the electoral authority’s budget and shrink the size of Congress, and another that would dismantle a series of independent regulatory agencies.

The reforms track with López Obrador’s centralized vision of power, which he touts as “republican austerity,” but that his opponents see as a breeding ground for corruption and mismanagement.

“There is money, but it is terribly misspent. Today the health care system has 120 million pesos [about $7 billion], but today we are spending 30 percent more on drugs than when this government arrived, because he was supposedly going to combat corruption,” said Gálvez.

Those inefficiencies spill over into the U.S. economy – as of July, Mexico is the country’s largest trading partner, in large part because of economic integration spurred by the North American Free Trade Agreement and its successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement.

But for Gálvez, the greatest threat Washington is ignoring is the link between alleged acts of corruption and empowerment of major transnational criminal organizations.

“[U.S. officials] know that drug cartels control a great part of the country’s territory. They know perfectly well that Andrés Manuel is not a democrat, that his candidate is going to be a candidate of continuity,” said Gálvez.

“If [U.S. officials] think that just ends up in luxury cars and luxury houses for politicians, they haven’t realized that money ends up in organized crime, and it’s strengthening organized crime.”

And Gálvez’s allies are warning that Mexican democracy is a geopolitical asset.

Amid simmering great power tensions, López Obrador has followed Mexican Cold War doctrine in flirting with U.S. rivals, including inviting Russian army officials to march in the annual Independence Day military parade in September and awarding the Aztec Eagle to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in February.

“She has been very clear to say that there is a mistrust that some of these governments are intentionally facilitating the movement of people. I think that Venezuela, Nicaragua, we are very suspicious that behind this … are the Russians,” Ildefonso Guajardo, Gálvez’s top foreign affairs adviser, told The Hill.

Asked what she made of the close relationship between López Obrador and Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, Gálvez said “Maduro and [López Obrador] are the same. They’re two authoritarian governments, human rights violators.”

The Biden administration has refused to criticize López Obrador publicly, and over the past few months top administration officials have spent considerable time working to gain the Mexican president’s favor.

That push has not come without snafus: Following a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and homeland security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall to López Obrador, the White House published the wrong version of a joint statement between the two countries, violating diplomatic protocol.

That violation was especially aggravating to Mexican officials as the White House included “democratic decline” as a root cause of regional migration, a phrase that had been considered by the U.S. delegation but that ultimately wasn’t even proposed to their Mexican counterparts.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Sherwood-Randall led a delegation to meet with López Obrador in Mexico City to build a 10-point framework to combat illicit drug trafficking, with a focus on fentanyl.

Administration officials told reporters Thursday that democracy was not a subject of conversation — and not in Sherwood-Randall’s purview.

“But we engage in wide-ranging discussions directly with the Mexicans on these topics, so I would not read into its exclusion as something that is deprioritized. It just wasn’t the subject of the meeting,” said a senior administration official.

Yet there has been scant public acknowledgement by U.S. authorities of the Mexican opposition’s dire warnings of a rigged election.

“The main concern for the current administration is … fentanyl and migration, but we see that other actors are interested in doing something, particularly on international observers, electoral observers,” said Gabriel España, founder of MexicanosEnDC, a civil society organization grouping Mexican nationals in Washington.

“But it’s not going to happen if we don’t see goodwill, and an effort and intention from the Congress. We don’t expect to see the federal government doing something meaningful because of their political interest. Their interest is not exactly democracy at this point in Mexico,” added España.

Gálvez met with several members of Congress during her visit to Washington and is planning a visit to Spain to raise the same concerns.

Still, she points out she is running an uphill battle, attempting to come behind in the polls against a candidate running on a popular incumbent’s coattails, and facing a “state election” – an electoral process where the government’s resources are poured to assist the official candidate.

“For starters, the election is not going to be fair. What’s more, in this moment the official candidate has received a lot of resources for her campaign that are evident, they’re visible,” said Gálvez.

“So the use of money for social programs to buy votes is something we’ll live with in this election. And the president has said it publicly: that that’s why he loves the poor, because they’re loyal to him.”

Gálvez, though, says voters are exhausted with increasing cartel violence in Mexico and López Obrador’s “hugs, not bullets” policy that’s been largely ineffective in quelling organized crime.

“So we have to run a campaign where I’ve clearly said that what’s working stays — that’s social programs — because that’s the issue where he’s strong, and obviously point out two very grave problems, which are deterioration of the health care system and the issue of public safety,” she said.

And Gálvez issued a dire warning for the future of Mexican democracy if Sheinbaum wins in June.

“It might take us two decades to return to democratic normality,” she said.


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