Trump Border Plan Roiling Mexican Politics
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has low approval ratings following a series of scandals. The leading presidential candidate in Mexico's 2018 election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is critical of both Peña and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Lorne Matalon
May 05, 2017
Lorne Matalon
A Mexican federal police officer secures a road near a suspected human smuggling route near Juárez. López Obrador claims an expanded border wall will make smuggling routes more dangerous.
Lorne Matalon
Mexican police storm the home of a suspected kidnap ring leader. Kidnapping and extortion are plagues in Mexico. López Obrador believes Mexico's elites have ignored the phenomenon.
Lorne Matalon
Mexican soldiers burn a marijuana field in Sinaloa near Mexico's Pacific coastline. This is part of an eradication program supported by the United States. López Obrador has said he will not accept American military aid should he become Mexico's president.

MEXICO CITY-- Mexico will elect a new president next year. Although President Trump has temporarily delayed withdrawing the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, continued uncertainty over NAFTA and Trump's plans for a border wall are roiling Mexican politics. The outcome may have implications for the nearly 5 million American jobs that are tied directly to trade with Mexico.

Former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador is one of several figures who have either declared their candidacy or expressed interest. Others include Margarita Zavala, wife of former president Felipe Calderón, and Miguel Ángel Mancera, Mexico City's current mayor.

Peña Nieto’s six-year term ends next year. The constitution bars him from seeking re-election.

Mexico’s political parties must nominate a presidential candidate by March 2018 for the a vote that will take place the following July. And the jockeying has already started.

Trump's election has triggered a rise in Mexican nationalism. A populist Mexican leftist, who wants to reduce economic dependence on the United States, is channeling that nationalism

Though defeated in Mexico’s last two elections, López Obrador is leading in numerous polls as Mexico's next presidential cycle approaches. He's riding revulsion over Trump’s anti-Mexico rhetoric. López Obrador told Univision television journalist León Krauze that Mexico should not accept American military assistance, currently provided each year under terms of the Merida Initiative.

"I never dreamed in my lifetime of a U.S. president that would be afraid of Mexico, afraid of competition,” said Juan Carlos Romero Hicks, a member of the Mexican Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

He said Trump has given the left a political gift. Since Trump's victory, Romero Hicks has continued to promote an integrated North American economy. But he said that has not been an easy task since the American election.

"In the U.S. there's notion that is not correct that Mexicans are taking jobs from Americans, that we are a security threat," Romero Hicks said. "Building a wall is absurd."

López Obrador is leveraging that feeling. He opposes the 2014 opening of Mexico's oil and gas markets to foreign investors, many in the U.S.— names like Exxon Mobil and Chevron that have already moved in. He wants to import less U.S. corn and gasoline. He believes Mexico should stand up for itself.

There is a blueprint of sorts. In 2009, Mexico placed tariffs on certain goods from Oregon and California during a trade dispute. The tariffs were only lifted when the U.S. stopped blocking Mexican trucks from gaining full access to U.S. highways.

Victor Hugo Michel is the chief editor of El Financiero television, a channel focused on the economy. "Donald Trump has permeated the Mexican political discourse,” he said. An El Financiero poll suggests López Obrador's fortunes began rising with the arrival of the new American president.

"Andrés Manuel López Obrador, he has positioned himself as the only candidate that would know how to react to Donald Trump,” Michel said. “And this is having a success because most Mexican voters want to see retaliation.”

Mexican political scientist Federico Estevez believes López Obrador is also using uncertainty about the border issue to pressure Mexico's government to improve conditions at home.

"For too long Mexicans have coddled that illusion that if things were bad enough they could always go north for a new opportunity. And so if you put up the wall, well there's no better symbol that tells you, 'Nope, you're stuck,'" Estevez said.

"Mexican politicians care less and less about job creation here in Mexico because they do know they can export Mexicans to the U.S. But that has changed,” said Esteban Illades, managing editor of web content at the current affairs magazine Nexos.

After peaking in 2000, the Pew Research Center said in 2015 net migration to the U.S. from Mexico was zero. That trend continues. As many Mexicans enter the U.S. as leave each year. But since Trump started talking about the border, some undocumented Mexicans have come home.

“President Peña Nieto said a few weeks ago that Mexicans were coming because they knew that Mexico was the land of opportunity,” Illades said. However he is not buying what President Peña is selling.

“There's no job creation, violence is at the levels we haven't seen since 2011. They’re not coming back because they want to," Illades said. "They’re are coming back because they're scared or because they're being deported by Donald Trump.”

Though a leftist, López Obrador and Trump are fellow travelers in a sense. Both rail against their neighbor and both want change on the border.

Trump wants it effectively sealed while López Obrador wants the U.S. to reform immigration law so the border isn’t a symbol of stark division.

A longtime advocate for migrant protection, López Obrador envisions a border where Mexicans can cross in an orderly manner to work legally, if only temporarily, in the U.S.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Fronteras Desk reporter Lorne Matalon is the 2016-2017 Energy Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin's Energy Institute and KBH Center for Energy, Law and Business. He is researching Mexico's energy reform and Mexico-U.S. relations.