President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) reacted very differently to two recent events in Mexico. The first one was the news about several drug trafficking groups distributing basic goods across the country amid the pandemic. The second event was the agreement between a group of Mexican businessmen with the Inter-American Development Bank’s private sector arm (IDB Invest) to provide financing to their suppliers without the Mexican government acting as guarantor.
Regarding criminal groups distributing basic goods, AMLO simply said: “It would be helpful if they were to leave aside their stunts. It would be helpful if they professed love to their neighbors”. In contrast, AMLO reacted visibly upset to the news of the IDB agreement saying: “I really don’t like the ways of (the Mexican business sector) agreeing to something and then wanting to impose their plans on us. Are we just supposed to stand here and look pretty?”
I naively thought that AMLO’s outburst regarding the Mexican private sector’s agreement with the IDB was because he had not understood the financing deal. And that the President would reconsider the moment someone dared to explain his mistake to him. The next day however, AMLO became angry again, even when saying that he did not see the program badly. He said:
“Even if (the financing program with the IDB) is used to support small businesses, even if it is used to promote economic growth, even if it is used to create jobs, what has been proven is that these bailouts from above are equivalent to corruption”.
The government transformation AMLO says he is leading consists of separating political power in Mexico from economic power. It is a laudable goal.
Is AMLO’s goal not to create rich entrepreneurs at the Mexican government’s expense? It would be enough not to pay them favors. It does not help that today there are more direct allocations of government contracts than before. There are plenty of press releases denouncing contracts to companies sanctioned in the past. AMLO is silent as a mummy on this.
Most of Mexico’s entrepreneurs do not live on the government, and an important part of them nurture it. Taxes come either from them or from individual Mexicans. Businesses in Mexico survive despite the government. They face a world of excessive and absurd regulation, with low-quality public goods and services.
It is worrying that AMLO does not see that the most pernicious for Mexico today is the economic power that criminal groups have. They generally use bribery and the threat of bullets to have authorities willing to collaborate with them. They have corrupted an important part of the local powers, which are at their service.
AMLO is threatening entrepreneurs who, according to Mexico’s revenue service administration (SAT), have not paid what they should. We have not seen a similar government’s resolve against criminals. Nor should it be a surprise. During his presidential campaign, AMLO promised a security strategy against criminal groups based on the mantra of “hugs not bullets.” He is delivering on this promise.
The challenge of confronting organized crime is very complex. In the absence of Mexican government action, organized crime groups are filling empty spaces, distributing basic goods, giving loans, monitoring compliance with lockdown orders. To confront such powerful criminal organizations, a competent and willing Mexican government is required to do so. We have not seen it.
Why is AMLO not worried about looking useless in the face of organized crime? I do not know. But all the hypotheses that I imagine are worrisome.
* Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra is professor at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec de Monterrey, in Mexico City. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @carloselizondom