On a recent Saturday morning in Mexico City, a group of students, farmers, academics, workers, and activists gathered to strategize. The day marked three weeks since the country had elected center-left candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador—known to many by his initials, AMLO—as president.
The eclectic group, members of the People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT), originally united around the fight against the New International Airport of Mexico City, a massive development planned for the outskirts of the capital. The biggest infrastructure project in Mexico in over a century, construction plans for the airport were first proposed in 2001 by then-President Vicente Fox, but were canceled a year later after residents of the surrounding communities of Texcoco and San Salvador Atenco protested the land seizures and ecological damage the venture were expected to bring. Current president Enrique Peña Nieto resurrected the plan in 2014—but in the wake of the July 1 presidential elections, the FPDT hopes to get president-elect AMLO over to their side.
Despite beginning his political career in the PRI—the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has dominated Mexican politics for most of the last 90 years—and serving more than four years as Mexico City’s Head of Government (a position akin to a US city mayor), López Obrador firmly positioned himself as an outsider running against the status quo. He’s called himself an anti-neoliberal and a nationalist, speaking openly about putting Mexico first, restoring the Mexican countryside by subsidizing peasant farmers, and renegotiating NAFTA. In both the foreign and national press, López Obrador has been painted as a leftist populist challenging the country’s political status quo.
But he may not be the leftist messiah many make him out to be. He won the presidency on his third and most moderate run, this time toning down his anti-capitalist rhetoric and moving to assuage the concerns of the business elite. While AMLO campaigned as an ally of indigenous people and rural Mexicans, members of social movements like the FPDT doubt the authenticity of his rhetoric.
Indeed, López Obrador’s ideological affiliation with the left has historically been seen as tenuous. Anthropologist, journalist, and politician Gilberto López y Rivas, who served as a delegate for the Mexico City district of Tlalpan during AMLO’s time as mayor, insists that López Obrador never meaningfully aligned himself with leftists. “In no way can he consider himself a person from the left,” he said. “He was a member of the PRI, he came out of the ‘PRIista’ regime, always with this ideological ambiguity—that everything can be explained through the struggle against corruption and the ‘mafia of power.’ Now he is appointing people to his cabinet who can be considered part of that mafia.”
In particular, López Obrador’s posture toward foreign-owned mines, gas pipelines, and infrastructure projects has sparked criticism from the left. He appointed as head of his cabinet business magnate Alfonso Romo, a big player in Mexico’s financial, agriculture, and biotech sectors, and once a strong backer of conservative former President Fox. AMLO and Romo both have supported parts of the Mesoamerica Project, also known as the Puebla-Panama Plan, a series of major infrastructure projects in the south of the country. In Mexico, such schemes are often synonymous with expropriation of indigenous-owned land, militarization, and dire ecological consequences for rural farming communities.
Some see AMLO as, at best, an economic reformer. But others feel sure his tenure as president will look the same as his predecessors’. In the weeks after the election, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)—arguably the most prominent anti-neoliberal movement in Mexico, if not in Latin America—released a statement warning supporters that little would change with the new president. “They can switch up the overseers, foremen, and supervisors,” it read, “but the plantation owner remains the same.”
Soon after the election, the incoming López Obrador administration signaled that it would honor the San Andrés Accords—a series of commitments the government negotiated with the EZLN in 1996. The accords were supposed to guarantee that Mexico’s federal government would respect indigenous communities’ rights to autonomy and their territories’ natural resources, but the government walked away from the deal almost immediately after the Zapatistas signed on. The agreements never took effect, the federal government instead unilaterally drafting new laws on what it interpreted as indigenous rights. After these 2001 “Indigenous Rights and Culture” proposals, the EZLN cut off any further negotiations, insisting the government return to the original points of the San Andrés Accords.
López y Rivas sees AMLO’s talk about San Andrés as purely symbolic. “He’s talking to cover up reality,” López y Rivas said. Respecting the agreements would not only require legislative involvement out of the hands of the presidency, but would also necessitate undoing much of what has happened in rural Mexico in the last twenty years. “If he is going to respect the agreements, he should expel Canadian mining companies, get rid of Coca-Cola, which is sucking up all of Mexico’s water, get rid of the beer companies that are also taking our water—as long as he doesn’t do that, he shouldn’t say he will respect the San Andrés agreements.”
In the eyes of leftist detractors, López Obrador’s tenure as Mexico City’s mayor didn’t reflect many radical priorities, either (though López y Rivas observed that AMLO did appoint leftists to his cabinet). Rather, according to these critics, AMLO’s policies largely reflected a man concerned with attracting private investment. “He turned over the Historic Center to [Carlos] Slim,” López y Rivas noted, referring to the wealthy telecommunications magnate’s investment in the redevelopment of Mexico City’s central historic district, a move that was criticized as privatizing the center of the city. “He cares about offering Mexico to tourists,” said López y Rivas.
In his time as mayor, AMLO chose a prominent right-wing ally: In 2002, he hired Rudy Giuliani to consult on Mexico City’s policing and crime. Under López Obrador’s watch, the city paid the former New York City mayor’s consulting firm $4.3 million to bring NYC’s much-touted “broken-windows” policy to its police force. Giuliani’s recommendations included a crackdown on graffiti and noise, and harsher punishment of sex workers and people sleeping on the streets. It’s not clear whether Giuliani’s policies made much of a difference in the city’s crime rate, but commentators have pointed out that AMLO’s relationship with the mayor-turned-White-House-surrogate provides a natural bridge to President Trump.
Still, despite their suspicions, the FPDT members emphasized that their struggle is not against López Obrador but against the new airport in Texcoco. As of the beginning of August, López Obrador included the airport project as one of his top development priorities, though it remains to be seen whether it will be constructed in the Texcoco site or, as AMLO has suggested before, if the project will involve repurposing an existing military base outside the city.
Regardless of where the president-elect eventually falls, Gustavo Lozano, the legal coordinator of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining, said the task of Mexico’s left will remain the same as ever. “Our work is to put ourselves on the side of the people, beyond professional politics, independent of the decisions that they take in the offices.”
“Our principal concern,” Lozano said, is not with the politicians, but is instead with “the real possibilities that exist for the people to organize to take their destinies into their own hands.”