Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador showing a two-dollar bill during a press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City on March 18, 2020. Many questions remain unanswered over his leadership. Photo: AFP

Mexico has always been treated by the US national security establishment as an afterthought, which is a big mistake since the possible consequences to the US of a completely inept and thoroughly corrupt government in a country of 130 million people south of the border, poses a huge potential danger.

As I have been documenting in this series of articles on the Demolition Derby of Mexico by President López Obrador’s (AMLO) administration since its election in July 2018, one of its central problems is that jobs that demand high levels of competency and advanced qualifications have been given to people without a suitable education or the specialized training and experience required. Instead, they are given to those who are slavishly loyal to AMLO and whatever cockeyed ideas he comes up with.

Covid-19 mismanagement

This trend already has had terrible consequences in all aspects of Mexican life, including the disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are now 140,000 fatalities, according to official figures that are grossly underestimated. This is the fourth largest tally of deaths in the world, nearly equal to India that has 10 times more cases and 11 times more people. This abysmal performance is the result of a combination of ineptitude, arrogance, deception, denying facts and rejecting science’s most basic lessons.

The Covid 19 vaccination plan is a perfect example of what AMLO’s intentions are: to use it as an electoral tool to attract people to his movement. First, he plans to begin the program not in the most populous urban centers where the pandemic is claiming the largest toll, but in distant rural communities, like the one he comes from.

Running the process will be 10,000 teams composed of 12 persons each: a doctor and a nurse; four “social promoters” of AMLO’s welfare programs; four soldiers for “security”; and two volunteers without clear duties. It is obvious that this cumbersome system, which will surely fail to inoculate 130 million Mexicans any time soon, has the clear aim of political control and indoctrination, rather than an adequate dispersion of the vaccine.

Nuclear disaster

There are other areas in which the ineptitude of Mexico’s government poses even more lethal perils to the US, such as the potential meltdown of the country’s solitary electricity-generating nuclear facility in Laguna Verde, Veracruz. So far, there have been three known incidents in the last year in which routine practices like changing the enriched uranium rods that feed the plant, ended up in red alerts with an imminent threat of a nuclear meltdown like the one that occurred in the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan in 2011. The difference with the Mexican case, though, is that neither earthquake nor tsunami has occurred, just sheer ineptitude.

According to one expert, the director of Energy in the authoritative NGO Climate Initiative of Mexico, the personnel in charge of these operations in Laguna Verde are not qualified. They do not follow prescribed procedures, supervision of the regulating authority is inadequate and there is a complete lack of clarity as to how the plant is operating. Since the start of AMLO’s administration, there have been three managers in charge of the plant and there are allegations that the current one does not have the required qualifications.

This revelation should not surprise anyone since overall staffing in the country’s important energy sector might win the prize as the worst group in the whole government. The sector’s leadership is highly ideological but has no technical knowledge; they always favor strengthening state monopolies and stifling competition and private investment. The leadership includes:

  • Manuel Bartlett is the director-general of the CFE (Federal Electricity Commission), the government-owned behemoth of the electrical sector. Bartlett is trying to restore the Commission’s monopolistic control. The 85-year-old bureaucrat, who studied law and has never worked outside the government, somehow managed to amass a huge real estate fortune. He has no background in energy whatsoever and cannot venture into the US due to his potential arrest over charges that he masterminded the assassination of a DEA agent in 1985 when he was the minister of the interior.
  • Octavio Romero is the top man in Pemex, the government-owned oil monopoly and Mexico’s largest corporation. Like AMLO, Romero is from Tabasco, a south-eastern tropical state that produces oil and bananas. He is a cattle rancher who supposedly studied agronomy in a now disappeared school in his native state but has absolutely no understanding of oil or financial management, clearly important knowledge for managing the largest debt of any oil company in the world – $106 billion. In 2019, Romero’s first year in office, Pemex lost $35 billion.
  • Energy Secretary Rocío Nahle studied chemical engineering and worked at medium level jobs in Pemex refineries but abandoned her professional career to raise her family – until she became a politician with AMLO as her promoter. It was embarrassing to see her interact with oil ministers of the G-20 since it was clear she did not understand what was going on, even though the simultaneous translation was quite skillful.

This band of incompetent officials has surrounded themselves with underlings of the same ilk – the results have been underwhelming. It is estimated by most market observers that the energy sector will be the cause of Mexico having its credit rating reduced to junk status later this year, the same category held by bonds from Pemex and CFE. The downgrade could substantially increase Mexico’s foreign debt.

Picking a fight with Biden?

For reasons that are not immediately clear, AMLO, who unexpectedly became a subservient ally of Donald Trump, praising him unduly and ignoring his repeated insults to Mexico and his inhabitants, has been acting in an aggressive and very undiplomatic way towards the incoming president, Joe Biden.

First, during the most heated phase of the US presidential campaign, AMLO, who claims to never interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and refuses to travel outside his country, accepted the invitation of Trump to come to Washington in what was a clear campaign stunt that he wanted to use to appeal to the electorate of Mexican origin, as he duly did in a prolific ad campaign.

After the US presidential election, AMLO refused to congratulate Biden when his victory was called and when most world leaders did, and only followed suit when the US Electoral College declared him the official winner of the election. His letter to that effect, though, was ill conceived since it was aloof and mainly highlighted AMLO’s expectation that the new US president would respect Mexico sovereignty.

In a completely surprising outburst, AMLO offered political asylum to Julian Assange, after a judge in the United Kingdom decided that he could not be extradited to the US where he is sought for having breached its laws by revealing strategic secrets the put in peril several agents and intelligence operations. Mexico has no interest or link with Assange, whom AMLO referred to as a “unjustly hunted journalist.”

Around the same time, AMLO’s government issued new regulation on the support of Mexico to US security agencies (FBI, CIA, DEA, ATF, etc.) operating in the country in the fight against transnational criminal organizations, in such a way that such collaboration becomes impossible since it centralizes all contacts between agents in the department of Foreign Affairs before becoming operational with their actual counterparts in the Mexican security agencies.

The reason for this new bureaucratic wall was the detention and imprisonment in the US of a former secretary of national defense of Mexico on charges prepared by the DEA without consultation with Mexico’s authorities. This act caused an uproar in the country’s armed forces, which pressured the president to act and, in doing so he made the implicit threat that all cooperation on security matters would cease, and US security agents in Mexico could be expelled unless the general was returned to his country. This was done immediately on orders of the US attorney general, with the proviso that the investigation would continue in Mexico, but on December 15 the general was publicly exonerated and his case closed, which provoked the rage of the US national security establishment.

Finally, AMLO is probably the only head of state in the world who has not expressed his sorrow regarding the violence in the US Capitol after hordes of Trump allies, spurred by the outgoing president, invaded it with great danger to the lives of legislators who were in the final, and mostly ceremonial Congressional counting of the electoral votes. AMLO lamented, instead, that the social media had deprived Trump of his favorite means of communication, claiming that it was an act of intolerable censorship, never alluding to the fact that they had been used to incite a rebellion attempting to overthrow a legal and valid election.

This attitude by AMLO, the Mexican aspiring autocrat, is not encouraging for a fruitful and mutually rewarding bilateral relationship between the two neighbors. Meanwhile, as he picks a new fight, he continues his devastating demolition derby annihilating the country’s institutions, economy and democracy in a rampage that will set it back many decades. 

Manuel Suárez-Mier is an economist and former central bank official, economic diplomat and professor at Georgetown and American universities. He is a consultant residing in Washington D.C.