President Amlo takes power with vow to transform Mexico – but can he deliver?

Leftwinger to be sworn in on wave of hope that he can fix poverty, corruption and crime on behalf of ordinary Mexicans

Amlo has promised to rule with frugality, selling the presidential plane, swapping limousines for a Volkswagen Jetta and taking a 60% pay cut. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador will take power on Saturday on a wave of hope that he can transform the country on behalf of the poor and marginalized – and suspicions that he will not be able to fulfill such great expectations.

The silver-haired 64-year-old, who counts Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a close friend, won a historic victory in July, bringing the Mexican left to power after 30 years of dashed expectations.

Figures from around the world have been invited to the inauguration, including US vice-president Mike Pence, first daughter Ivanka Trump, Corbyn and – to the disgust of López Obrador’s domestic critics – Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro.

The man known as Amlo takes office as international attention focuses on a caravan of Central American migrants camped out at the US-Mexico border – the first foreign policy challenge of his administration.

Pundits had warned Amlo’s election would unleash a wave of latent anti-Americanism in response to Donald Trump’s racist provocations – but Mexicans seem more preoccupied with the domestic problems such as rampant corruption, persistent poverty and a militarized drug war that has left 200,000 dead.Quick guide

Mexico's war on drugs

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Why did Mexico launch its war on drugs?

On 10 December 2006, president Felipe Calderón, launched Mexico’s war on drugs by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán, where rival cartels were engaged in tit-for-tat massacres.

Calderón declared war eight days after taking power – a move widely seen as an attempt to boost his own legitimacy after a bitterly contested election victory. Within two months, around 20,000 troops were involved in operations across the country.

What has the war cost so far?

The US has donated at least $1.5bn through the Merida Initiative since 2008, while Mexico has spent at least $54bn on security and defence since 2007. Critics say that this influx of cash has helped create an opaque security industry open to corruption at every level.

But the biggest costs have been human: since 2007, around 230,000 people have been murdered and more than 28,000 reported as disappeared. Human rights groups have also detailed a vast rise in human rights abuses by security forces.

As the cartels have fractured and diversified, other violent crimes such as kidnapping and extortion have also surged. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by violence. 

What has been achieved?

Improved collaboration between the US and Mexico has resulted in numerous high-profile arrests and drug busts. Officials say 25 of the 37 drug traffickers on Calderón’s most-wanted list have been jailed, extradited to the US or killed, although not all of these actions have been independently corroborated.

The biggest victory – and most embarrassing blunder – under Peña Nieto’s leadership was the recapture, escape and another recapture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

While the crackdown and capture of kingpins has won praise from the media and US, it has done little to reduce the violence.

How is the US involved?

Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs would never have been possible without the huge injection of American cash and military cooperation under the Merida Initiative. The funds have continued to flow despite growing evidence of serious human rights violations. 

Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP

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“We don’t like Trump, but we also understand that he’s a danger for the country – so if you can mollify the danger, so much the better,” said Federico Estévez, political science professor at ITAM, a private university.

With Amlo, “it’s about being Mexico-first, not being anti-gringo”, he added.

Amlo has promised to rule with frugality, selling the presidential plane, swapping limousines for a Volkswagen Jetta and taking a 60% pay cut – forcing other politicians and public servants to follow suit.

He takes power amid astronomical expectations from ordinary Mexicans.

“We need a change, to do what’s never been done before,” said Erik Yniesta, 44, an addictions counsellor.

“He took on the system and beat it. He was the only valid option,” said Eleonora Montes, a sales representative in Tijuana. “All our politicians steal. In a country that’s so poor, they come to power as a way to get rich.”

Such opinions reflect widespread disgust with the country’s mainstream politicians: outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto leaves office with historically low approval ratings.

Peña Nieto was initially feted by international commentators for structural reforms – Time magazine featured him on a cover emblazoned with the words “Saving Mexico” – but his administration quickly became bogged down in corruption scandals and growing anger over the dismal economy.

Meanwhile, the country raced past a series of grim milestones with record numbers of homicides, but the president seemed uninterested in tackling the violence and corruption which beset ordinary Mexicans.

“He simply didn’t know how to deal with the problems his government faced,” said Javier Garza, an editor in the northern city of Torreón.

Amlo promises clean government and has argued that previously corrupt politicians will fall into line if the president sets a proper example.

But last week, he stunned the country by saying he wouldn’t pursue past cases of corruption, preferring instead to turn the page.

He further dismayed supporters by unveiling a plans for a new militarized national guard under military command – despite mounting evidence that Mexico’s armed forces have committed widespread human rights abuses in the name of the war on organized crimes.

Meanwhile, he has held a string of plebiscites before even taking office – overturning a proposed new airport in Mexico city and rubber-stamping a series of pet projects, including a new refinery in his home state and a “tourist” train to the Mayan ruins of Palenque.

All of the proposals were overwhelmingly approved – but on a turnout in single figures.

“These last few months have made it evident [his] project isn’t very clear,” said Diego Petersen Farah, a columnist with the Guadalajara newspaper El Informador. “There is a lot of improvisation and less intelligence than is necessary.”

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