In the weeks between the US election and inauguration, the Mexican president took several measures that were surprisingly hostile to the United States. Andrés Manuel López Obrador (widely known as AMLO) was one of only three world leaders who only recognized President Joe Biden's election victory after the official vote in the electoral college. In December, AMLO monitored the approval of a new safety law that will severely restrict US anti-drug operations in Mexico. In early January he offered political asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, who is criminalized in the US for publishing classified information.
In mid-January, his government exonerated a Mexican general and former defense minister, Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested in the United States for collaborating with a drug cartel. (This came after the United States agreed to extradite General Cienfuegos in response to a Mexican demand to maintain effective security cooperation. The Mexican government then publicly released the Drug Enforcement Administration's evidence against general information confidential to Mexico placed and protected under the protection of the bilateral treaty on mutual legal assistance.)
This litany of friction disrupted cross-border security cooperation and threatened to create a wider crisis in relationships. Because of this, AMLO's actions sparked speculation among Mexican observers about his motivation. Some have argued that he indulged in Yanqui bashing on domestic policy grounds. Others believed he was signaling his strong preference for former US President Donald Trump, with whom AMLO was particularly friendly.
Both explanations are flawed. AMLO was never reflexively anti-American, nor was it interested in an antagonistic relationship with its northern neighbor. And just because he worked with Trump doesn't mean he'll be against Biden. It is more likely that AMLO is trying to preemptively set its preferred terms of cooperation with the new US administration.
To understand López Obrador's actions, one must first understand that he is a man on a mission. He has dedicated his career to building a more egalitarian and prosperous Mexico under the leadership of a benevolent yet powerful state that governs the economy and society. Now that he's president but only has a six-year term, he's in a hurry too. He has introduced a number of social programs for long-neglected areas of society and anchored them in the constitution and initiated infrastructure projects that are intended to benefit poorer regions of the country. He has tightened corporate regulation as he seeks to rebuild the dominant position of the state-owned oil company (Pemex) and the electricity company (CFE) in an effort to restore Mexico's energy independence. And he is actively limiting control of the president's power to ensure the long-term survival of this project. He will not stand for anything that could delay or derail his plans. Since taking office in 2018, he has moved on in the face of vocal opposition, a global pandemic, and mounting evidence that his plans will fail in the long term.
AMLO is now approaching the Biden administration – which has signaled a desire to forge a good working relationship with Mexico despite promoting clean energy, democracy and human rights as pillars of its Latin American policies – as another potential domestic obstacle. He doesn't want to disturb or counteract Biden on the world stage, but he wants to take preventive action against the opposition the new US president may show to AMLO's domestic policies. It is a signal that while AMLO wants a constructive relationship with the United States, it will speak out strongly against anything from Washington that challenges, let alone counter, anything from Washington that challenges its domestic agenda.
AMLO's setbacks are certainly not a good sign for US-Mexico relations at the start of the Biden administration. Security cooperation had already declined under AMLO, and suspicions had been raised on both sides. Mexico accused the US DEA of fabricating evidence against Cienfuegos, the Mexican general and former defense secretary, and the US Department of Justice accused Mexico of malevolence and threatened to stop exchanges of information necessary for effective operations against organized crime are vital. Cooperation to fight crime and violence in Mexico will inevitably suffer in the near future, including efforts to combat a burgeoning fentanyl traffic, which is creating a serious public health challenge in the United States.
Still, AMLO has already taken some of the provocations back, signaling that it would ultimately prefer a constructive relationship with the United States. For example, restrictions on U.S. law enforcement agencies in Mexico have been relaxed. AMLO has also suggested that the US authorities arrested the general on the eve of the election for political reasons, implying that it is an anomaly that is not representative of US behavior towards Mexico. And AMLO argued that its disclosure of confidential information from a Trump administration investigation should not affect good relations with Biden.
AMLO's goal is to prevent its powerful neighbor from using its advantage to pressure Mexico to change its domestic policy. For the past two years, Mexican relations with the United States have reflected a desire to deny Trump a reason to translate his anti-Mexico rhetoric into an anti-Mexico policy. Mexico was aware of its great importance for Trump and willingly changed its migration policy. AMLO used the National Guard to prevent Central American migrants from crossing Mexico to get to the United States. He also allowed the United States to force asylum seekers to wait for their day before a US court in Mexican border towns. And in turn, the Trump administration remained silent as AMLO pursued what he calls Mexico's fourth transformation – a domestic political program in which the Mexican president weakened democratic institutions, effectively eliminated private investments in the energy sector, violated Mexican commitments on climate change, and ultimately threatened he with the elimination of institutions devoted to freedom of information enforcement and antitrust efforts (which directly violate the provisions of the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada or the USMCA, the revision of NAFTA, which Mexico signed in 2019 would).
Given the Biden team's emphasis on democracy, human rights and climate change, and expressed concern about the treatment of US investors in Mexico, AMLO expects greater pressure from the US to modify elements of AMLO's popular domestic policy project. To prevent this from happening, he is returning to his roots as a Mexican nationalist and protecting Mexican sovereignty in a tactical shift to limit US interference in Mexican affairs.
At the same time, AMLO fully recognizes that the deep integration between the economies of both countries means that a good working relationship with the United States is also vital to its domestic success. He understands that cross-border supply chain integration means that the most demanding sectors of the Mexican economy cannot function without a seamless trading relationship. And he knows that this export sector is the engine that will pull Mexico out of its current depression and generate substantial tax revenues on which its expansion of the state depends.
In dealing with AMLO, the United States must adhere to a saying about Mexico that applies again: Mexico is more prone to cooperation when political differences are expressed quietly behind closed doors than when they are aired publicly. The Biden administration needs to consider AMLO's sensitivity when choosing where, when and how to challenge it. It should also rely heavily on the USMCA. AMLO has shown reluctance to take action that violates the terms of this agreement.
AMLO's dual goals – the need for good relations with the United States, but also reducing the likelihood of the US pushing Mexico to change policy – suggest a Mexico that will be a thorny partner for the new Biden administration becomes, but not an anti-American antagonist. Dealing with Mexico will be more difficult than it was four years ago, but with skilled diplomacy the relationship can be productive.