On January 13, 2023, the London-based organization Index on Censorship named Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) its Tyrant of the Year for 2022. “While competition was tough, one leader surged ahead, by a mile in fact,” insists the accompanying text, which goes on to recite a series of justifications for the designation, including violence against journalists and environmental defenders, cozying up to Donald Trump, and “lashing out at women, NGOs, and the New York Times.” It concludes the list of offenses by quoting the business magazine Forbes to the effect that AMLO is a “human rights disaster.”
The text is, to put it charitably, strange. Written with a sort of secondary-school vocabulary and sentence structure, it asserts, for example, that the number of kidnappings, assaults, and arrests under AMLO’s watch “has been huge,” and that the Index covered Mexico “a lot” in the years under his predecessor. Further down, it presumes to speak for the entire nation by insisting that “people were cynical” about AMLO’s pledges at the time of his election — despite his winning in a historic landslide — and “it’s a shame to see their cynicism was correct.”
Despite this, a number of corporate outlets in Mexico and Latin America dutifully repeated the news, with articles about his nomination and subsequent designation appearing in El Financiero, Infobae, and El Universal. Conservative columnists and Twitter wags rubbed their hands in glee that the Mexican president had been included in a “rogues’ gallery” including Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, Ali Khamenei of Iran, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. For the love of God, AMLO had even beaten out Vladimir Putin!
Pin the Tail on the Tyrant
There was only one problem with this damning indictment. Well, a few problems.
The first was the method of voting. On the page where one is asked to plump for one’s despot of choice, there is no protection against multiple voting or any apparent safeguards at all. Just to try it out, I voted twice. Each time, the Index asked me to sign up for its newsletter (of course), but once I declined and hit “send,” I was sent to a “Thanks for voting” screen. Sure enough, the number of total votes ticked up each time. There was nothing, then, to have prevented a persistent individual or handful of people from running up the score and ensuring that AMLO “surged ahead by a mile.” But with all of this, the number of total votes for all twelve rogues was paltry: barely twelve thousand (the population of Mexico alone is 130 million).
This not to mention the obvious fact that in a country such as Mexico, internet access skews heavily to the middle and upper classes, those most likely to be thrilled to vote — as many times as necessary — to ensure that AMLO “won” a poll that reinforces their every bias. (In the rest of the country, the president’s approval rating has hovered consistently in the mid-to-upper sixties.)
The second problem was the information presented to guide voters in making their decision. In any remotely objective vote or referendum, participants must be presented with information that is both balanced and provides them with the necessary context. Nothing of the sort is presented here. Indeed, the case against AMLO, such as it is, is based on a series of conflations that are as neat as they are insidious.
The first of these is the suggestion that, because journalists are being killed in Mexico — due to the inherited ravages of a decade-and-a-half-long “drug war” that the administration has struggled to control — AMLO’s government is causing, even perpetrating, the killings. How else could this violence be understood within the framework of these nominations? The second conflation is simply an extension of the first: that even if AMLO is not pointing the gun directly, he is doing so with his words. Because he criticizes some journalists — including a caste of unscrupulous celebrities who made fortunes off their collusion with previous governments — all journalists are being placed in danger.
Not only does this reinforce the narrative of AMLO as provoking violence, it conveniently shields a clique of corporate media owned by the country’s richest from any criticism whatsoever. Instead of any attempt to provide nuanced explanations to foreign readers unfamiliar with Mexico’s culture and political history, the Index simply plays off a barely implicit stereotype — that all progressive leaders in Latin America are tin-pot dictators — to fuel their lurid little game of “pin the tail on the tyrant.”
A Fast Friend
The chief executive of the Index on Censorship is Ruth Smeeth, now Baroness Anderson. Smeeth hardly requires an introduction to UK readers: one of the most virulent anti-Corbyn members of the parliamentary Labour Party until losing her seat in 2019, Smeeth was responsible for the complaint — later withdrawn — that led to the expulsion of civil rights activist Marc Wadsworth from Labour (a process described in detail in Part Two of Al Jazeera’s The Labour Files).
But a decade before all this, Smeeth had another role: as a fast friend to the US government. In a confidential Wikileaks cable from 2009, drafted by Richard LeBaron, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in London, Smeeth — marked as “strictly protect” — was reported as being despondent at Gordon Brown’s abandoning of plans to call a snap general election due to declining poll numbers. Not despondent enough, apparently, to avoid providing inside information to the Americans about the leader of the party she was a parliamentary candidate for: as LeBaron pointed out, news of Brown’s no-go election had “not been reported in the press.”
Just as the Americans found a willing informant in Smeeth, they have found a willing organization in the Index on Censorship, even before Smeeth took the helm in 2020. According to an investigation carried out by Matt Kennard and Mark Curtis at Declassified UK, the Index received £603,257 in donations between 2016 and 2021 from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a US-government organization founded in the Reagan ’80s as a “soft power” complement to the CIA, whose image had become tarnished due to its undercover operations. The support given to the Index has been part of a larger push by NED to enter into the UK sphere by funding organizations such as Bellingcat, Finance Uncovered, openDemocracy, and Article 19.
For its part, the Index’s American connection does not end there: its funders also include the Charles Koch Foundation, founded by the ultraconservative brothers Charles and David Koch, as well as Facebook, Google, and Twitter. In Mexico, meanwhile, an investigative report by Contralínea Magazine discovered that NED also finances the organization Mexicanos contra la corrupción y la impunidad (Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity), founded by none other than Claudio X. González. González is the son of the president of Kimberly Clark Mexico and ringleader of the alliance of right-wing parties known as Va por México, which includes the conservative Catholic National Action Party (PAN) and the discredited Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the once-hegemonic party of state that ruled Mexico for seventy-one uninterrupted years in the twentieth century.
Saving Mexico From Itself
Just like the text accompanying the announcement on the Index’s website, the idea that “AMLO is a tyrant” is simply not a serious take, despite whatever legitimate criticisms may exist about his four years in power. But the idea here is not to be serious; it is to execute a political hit, using one-sided information and an easily manipulated “poll” to manufacture a story that, using the prestige of a first-world organization as a lever, can be replicated by pliant media in the target country.
The idea is to formally peg AMLO as a “persecutor of the press,” and thus create an unassailable position from which to affix their label. Just as disputing Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed antisemitism could see one accused of antisemitism in turn, disputing AMLO’s “tyranny” will turn one into a lover of tyrants and an appalling, beyond-the-pale opponent of a free press — the kind of reprobates that the Index, in all of its imperial glory, was born to save backward countries like Mexico from.
But the vast majority of the Mexican public, following years of attack after hysterical attack from the foreign press (with British outlets like the Guardian and the Economist leading the way), has long since become inured to the background noise. For his part, as a veteran of three presidential campaigns and a lifetime of well-financed media barrages, AMLO has demonstrated that he’s well aware of what’s at play. At his morning press conference on January 18, AMLO discussed NED’s funding of both the Index and opposition figures in Mexico, as well as the campaign against Corbyn: “accusing him of being against the Jewish community . . . that was very effective in damaging his political image.” Beyond any legal actions they could take, he went on, “the most important thing is to make people aware how all this works and how many of these associations are managed from abroad for political purposes.’
Meanwhile, in New York, the trial is underway for former public security minister Genaro García Luna. The trial of the man known as the “supercop” during the government of Felipe Calderón is expected to reveal an ugly web of complicity between the administration and the Sinaloa Cartel, together with a network of relationships with journalists, some threatened with their lives while others became the beneficiaries of enormous bribes in exchange for quashing negative coverage. Something, in short, that sounds remarkably like a “tyranny.” Perhaps the Index should send someone to cover it.