The Campaign to Smear AMLO as a Narco

As the Mexican presidential campaign heats up, media outlets and think tanks are desperately trying to tie AMLO and his popular Morena party to drug traffickers. It's a ludicrous smear that smacks of elite desperation.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaking during a conference on November 11, 2021 in Colima, Mexico. (Leonardo Montecillo / Agencia Press South / Getty Images)

Mexico is headed for the largest election in its history. On June 2, 2024, the presidency, both houses of Congress, nine governorships, thirty-one state legislatures, and thousands of local offices will all be contested. One name that will not be anywhere on the ballot, however, is that of Mexico’s most famous politician: current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is limited by the constitution to a single, six-year term.

This has not made him any less of a target for attacks. As the election season heats up, AMLO continues to be a lightning rod for another campaign, one attempting to link him and the party he founded, Morena, with the drug cartels.

Accusation #1: There will be an alliance between Morena and organized crime in Mexico’s 2024 elections

On January 18, the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University published its Mexico Country Outlook 2024. The “nonpartisan” institute, a hub of multinational energy interests financed by Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, British Petroleum, the Koch Foundation, the Mexican Business Council, and Kimberly-Clark de México (headed by opposition figure Claudio X. González Laporte), plays an important role in the cross-border media ecosystem as a purveyor of “nonpartisan analysis” and “data-driven research” that can then be lapped up by corporate outlets in need of an expert interview or report to cite.

In its Mexico Country Outlook, the institute did not disappoint its donors. In the midst of its standard laundering of right-wing talking points, it included the following juicy nugget: “Criminal organizations may even become an important electoral ally of MORENA in the June 2024 elections.” Later on, it doubles down more directly:

Despite US pressure, the [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador administration simply will not confront organized crime . . . which directly affect American interests. This is largely because the president’s party, MORENA, expects organized crime to operate in its favor during the 2024 elections.

No evidence is presented to support such extreme allegations, which are simply presented as the most reasonable of analysis.

In a subsequent, softball interview with the nominally progressive Texas Observer, Tony Payan, the head of the Center for the US and Mexico at Baker, proceeded to inject the accusation into the media bloodstream. “Clearly, criminal organizations have discovered that they have political interests — and that these align with MORENA,” he stated. “So, they will do anything they can to throw support in the direction of that party’s candidates and reduce the probability of victory for opposition candidates. That may involve deadly violence.” With the headline “A Possible Nexus Between MORENA and Criminals Is Seen in the US,” the allegation then hopped the border into the conservative newspaper Reforma, and from there to other outlets in Mexico. Along the way, a wholly unsubstantiated allegation had morphed into something sounding like hard fact.

Accusation #2: Organized crime financed AMLO’s 2006 campaign

Less than two weeks later, on January 30, three pieces were published in the media outlets ProPublica, InSight Crime, and Deutsche Welle on a different but related topic: the supposed relationship between organized crime and the first presidential campaign of AMLO in 2006. Despite the flashy, gang-up effect of three articles premiering on the same day, the combined substance was remarkably thin. Using a hedgy headline-in-the-form-of-a-question format (“Did Drug Traffickers Funnel Millions of Dollars to Mexican President López Obrador’s First Presidential Campaign?”), ProPublica attempted to make the case that drug traffickers had funneled $2 million dollars to campaign operatives in return for promises that an AMLO administration “would facilitate the traffickers’ criminal operations.”

On the face of it, the idea that the campaign would throw away its credibility for such a relative pittance was highly suspect. But that was just the start: as the piece itself laid out, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)’s case was based on the testimony of Roberto López Nájera, alias “Jennifer,” a former operative for the Beltrán Leyva Cartel. The only problem is that Nájera has proven repeatedly to be an unreliable witness whose testimony has led to a series of failed convictions, including of two former generals. (In an attempt to rehabilitate Nájera, author Tim Golden contends that his reputation had been sabotaged by “apparent government leaks.”) Such was the state of the investigation that, after reviewing clandestine recordings made of one of the campaign operatives in question, US prosecutors found themselves “underwhelmed” and closed the case.

Indeed, the only genuine revelation in ProPublica’s piece is an inadvertent one: that in 2011, on the eve of AMLO’s second presidential campaign, the DEA proposed a $5 million sting operation against his campaign operatives out of fear that, in the words of one official: “If this guy becomes president, he could shut us down.” (Something that became true, at least in part, with AMLO’s National Security Act of 2021, which curbs the agency’s powers on Mexican soil.) The admission is truly extraordinary: at the very time that Genaro García Luna, the security minister of President Felipe Calderón, was colluding with the Sinaloa Cartel — something the DEA was busy seeing and hearing no evil about — the agency instead was focused on trying to entrap AMLO’s campaign operatives out of the meanest of self-interest.

Faced with blowback in Mexico for having simply rehashed a closed investigation from over a decade prior (if there indeed had been anything incriminating against AMLO, is there any doubt that it would have been used against him in the elections of 2012 and 2018?), ProPublica felt compelled to come out in the piece’s defense a week later. The attempt at spin, however, was unconvincing.

Where Golden reported that the clandestine recordings left prosecutors underwhelmed, editor Stephen Engelberg now attempted to portray them as “incriminating, but not decisive,” with the obvious intention of suggesting that the case was only closed due to the diplomatic delicacy of investigating a once-and-future presidential candidate. And once again, the genuine eye-opener in the editor’s rewrite was something else entirely: ProPublica, Engelberg revealed, had both delayed publication and rewritten the piece at the behest of the DEA.

Accusation #3: The cartels were involved in AMLO’s 2018 campaign as well

Not to be left out, the New York Times decided to get in on the game on February 22. But where ProPublica et al. had at least crafted a narrative with names, places, and dates, all journalist Alan Feuer and Mexico bureau chief Natalie Kitroeff offer up is a feast of vagueness and insinuation. As they state in the opening paragraph, “American law enforcement officials” spent years looking into allegations set out by “US records” and “three people familiar with the matter.” The piece does not get any more specific from there: efforts by US officials identified “potential links” and “possible ties” between cartels and AMLO’s associates, but “did not find any direct connections” between the president and criminal organizations.

In a game of six degrees of separation, “records show that the investigators were told by an informant that” one of AMLO’s aides met with a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel before the 2018 election. In a similar vein, “investigators obtained information from a third source suggesting that drug cartels were in possession of videos” incriminating the president’s sons. Then, perhaps with the unreliability of López Nájera from the ProPublica article in mind, comes the catch-all caveat:

Much of the information collected by US officials came from informants whose accounts can be difficult to corroborate and sometimes end up being incorrect. The investigators obtained the information while looking into the activities of drug cartels, and it was not clear how much of what the informants told them was independently confirmed.

One might have thought that it was the job of Feuer and Kitroeff to independently confirm the information themselves before publishing the piece. Without that, the piece fails to rise above the level of chisme (gossip), and second-and-third hand chisme at that.

The Boomerang Effect

It wasn’t enough for all of the above — conveniently covering the gamut of recent presidential elections just as the next one is getting underway — to be published; it then had to be viralized. The Spanish social media analyst Julián Macías Tovar has documented how, on the heels of the articles, a series of hashtags portraying AMLO and presidential frontrunner Claudia Sheinbaum as a “narco-president” and “narco-candidate,” respectively, became multiday trending topics on X/Twitter.

In the style of a detective story of old, spelling errors in the hashtags allowed Macías Tovar to trace the origins of the trends to a series of troll centers in Spain, Colombia, and Argentina — the latter, due to its economic crisis and hyperinflation, providing special value for bot farm operations. Included among the offering was a network of “pornobots” combining the narco smears with racy posts and pictures. Gorged with artificial impetus, the hashtag campaign reached some two hundred million views and reproductions: a figure that AMLO remarked ironically as besting even the Superbowl.

Seizing on the trend, opposition presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez insisted that “this government made a pact with organized crime, this government made a pact with drug traffickers.” Ominously, Gálvez has also advanced the self-serving idea that cartel-related violence could lead to the invalidating of the election itself.

But even with the discourse now permeating social media and opposition attacks, something happened on the way to the land of character assassination: the script did not go according to plan. In the two-week period following the New York times piece, Morena’s Sheinbaum gained five points in the poll tracking the 2024 presidential campaign while Xóchitl Gálvez lost five. Then, to the gnashing of teeth by the Right for coming from one of its own, Reforma came out with its poll showing that AMLO’s popularity had risen eleven points to 73 percent between January and March, the period of the stiffest attacks. In response, political cartoonist José Hernández published a cartoon depicting AMLO’s increased popularity resting on a base composed of the icons of ProPublica, the New York Times, and X/Twitter.

Why did the offensive — which had everything in terms of money, lurid allegations, and the backing of “respectable” news outlets — fail? First and foremost, due to the slipshod, reiterative nature of the pieces themselves, which bared themselves as instruments of political attack rather than disinterested investigation. Reading like DEA stenography, in short, is bound to breed suspicion.

Second, there is a politicized Mexican population that has grown inured to years of slanted reporting and analysis from international media outlets, supposedly nonpartisan think tanks, and foreign correspondents that seem to go out of their way to insult the intelligence of the public. When ProPublica’s Golden chose a Mexican media outlet to defend his piece on, for example, he chose Latinus, an ultra-right-wing outlet several degrees worse than Fox News whose host, Carlos Loret de Mola, has been repeatedly exposed for lying and falsifying events.

Thirdly, there is the crisis of prestige in corporate media on an international level. On February 25, days after the latest piece, Mexican migrants in New York City protested the coverage of the New York Times on the sidewalk outside of the paper’s Manhattan headquarters; coming at a time when the Gray Lady is also under intense fire for its Gaza coverage and hiring of Anat Schwartz, the demonstration was particularly resonant.

And finally, there has been AMLO’s use of his daily morning press conference, or mañanera, to rebut the attacks in real time, together with his ability to frame the debate as a defense of national honor and sovereignty against an alliance of foreign political, economic, and media power. “I represent a country, I represent a people that deserves respect,” he said in the midst of the dust-up. “No one is going to just come here — because we are not criminals, we have moral authority — and just because it’s the New York Times, sit us down in the dock of the accused. That was before, when authorities in Mexico allowed themselves to be blackmailed. Not now.”