An Uncertain Future: The 2018 Mexican Election and US-Mexico Relations

Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador addresses supporters at a campaign rally in Michoacán. Photo:

By: Benjamin Carsman, Guest Contributor

On July 1, Mexicans will turn out for an election of historic proportions. Voters will elect not just a new president, but “every senator and representative, several governors and numerous local posts—more than 3,000 positions in all.”[i] Depending on the result, it could completely alter the direction of the Mexican government for years to come. It could also dramatically affect US-Mexico relations and, by extension, US national security.

This year’s election is occurring against a backdrop of significant domestic turmoil and instability. In 2017, Mexico saw over 29,000 homicides—the most observed since the government began keeping official records in 1997.[ii] While the vast majority of this violence is linked to transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and the drug trade, over 100 political candidates have also been assassinated during this election’s campaign season.[iii] Notably, this increase in the level of violence prompted the passage of a controversial ‘Internal Security Law’ last November that has formalized and expanded the President’s authority to deploy the Mexican Armed Forces in response to “threats to internal security.”[iv] Additionally, several high-profile corruption scandals in recent years have severely eroded the Mexican public’s trust in the current government, generating a wave of anti-establishment sentiment leading up to the election.

In terms of relations with the United States, the ongoing North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiation process has cast a pall of uncertainty over Mexico’s economic future, and recent tariff announcements by the US have severely complicated hopes for a conciliatory outcome.[v] Furthermore, the current US administration is enormously unpopular in Mexico due to its immigration and border security policies: in 2017, Mexican approval of US leadership dropped to a record low of 16%.[vi] The fact that the election on July 1 will likely be occurring in the midst of the current international backlash against the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy may further exacerbate this sentiment.[vii]

This political landscape has been almost perfectly suited for the nationalistic, anti-corruption platform of the current presidential front-runner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Colloquially known as ‘AMLO,’[viii] López Obrador has been described by his opponents as a left-wing populist akin to Hugo Chavez.[ix] Critics cite his populist rhetoric, his vocal skepticism of free trade and privatization, and his “contempt for norms, separation of powers and the rule of law” as cause for concern.[x] He has also spoken out strongly against the current US administration’s immigration, trade, and border security policies, leading some to characterize him as anti-American.[xi] Conversely, proponents point to his successful and broadly-supported tenure as Mayor of Mexico City,[xii] his outreach to the Mexican business community,[xiii] and his repeated claims that he seeks an amicable relationship with the US—one of “friendship and cooperation, but not submission”—as evidence that he will take a more moderate approach to governing.[xiv] While it is still unclear what an AMLO presidency will look like in practice, it is increasingly evident that he will likely win on July 1: as of the time of this writing, he was polling at 51.2%, over 25 points ahead of his nearest challenger.[xv] As such, US policymakers must recognize and accept this reality and seek to maintain a strong and cooperative bilateral relationship moving forward. Though a positive relationship with our southern neighbors is often taken for granted, a broad range of US national interests could be severely affected should the relationship sour.

First and foremost, the United States relies heavily on Mexican support and cooperation in combating TCOs engaged in trafficking illegal drugs into the U.S.[xvi] From joint investigations, to military and law enforcement capacity building, to extraditing kingpins like Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman,[xvii] a strong working relationship with the Mexican government is absolutely critical to stemming the flow of dangerous narcotics into the United States and reducing the violence and instability that these organizations foment across the border.

We also depend on Mexico to help control migration flows, both at the Rio Grande and along their own southern border. Notably, the Mexican government has been a crucial partner in addressing the flow of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries: in recent years Mexico has actually deported more Central American migrants than the U.S. by a margin of 2:1, including nearly 150,000 in 2016.[xviii]

Additionally, the US and Mexican economies have become intrinsically linked since NAFTA entered into force in 1994.[xix] According to the US Trade Representative, US-Mexico trade totaled over $616 billion in 2017.[xx] This includes $276.2 billion in goods exports, making Mexico the United States’ second largest goods export market in the world.[xxi] Nearly five million US jobs depend on trade with Mexico,[xxii] out of a total of roughly 14 million that rely on NAFTA as a whole.[xxiii] Needless to say, the impact on the US economy would be severe if this trade relationship were to be significantly disrupted.

Furthermore, America’s geopolitical rivals are ready and waiting to seize upon whatever opportunities may be afforded them by a schism with our southern neighbor. China is currently seeking to establish $500 billion in trade with the Latin American and Caribbean region by 2019, in addition to investing $250 billion to develop infrastructure and markets.[xxiv] There is no doubt they would happily take up whatever trade opportunities may be yielded by the U.S. should the NAFTA renegotiations fail. Meanwhile, US national security officials claim to have observed signs of Russian interference in the Mexican election beginning as early as January of this year.[xxv] Attempting to sabotage the US-Mexico relationship would be very much in keeping with Putin’s predilection for undermining US interests at every turn; moreover, doing so in our own ‘near abroad’ in repayment for decades of perceived American meddling in the post-Soviet space would likely be intensely satisfying for the Kremlin. The possibility of malign Russian activity across our border before, during, and after the election should not be ruled out.[xxvi]

In accordance with these interests and potential threats, maintaining a close, cooperative, and respectful partnership with the Mexican government is critical. While it is currently difficult to say what US-Mexico relations will look like under a López Obrador presidency, a deterioration in our bilateral relationship could have significant consequences for the US economy and national security. Whether in the form of limited cross-border law enforcement cooperation, decreased migration control, or the loss of billions of dollars in trade, there is much that could go wrong for the United States should policymakers fail to manage this transition.







[i] Shannon O’Neil, “Don’t Let Mexico’s Elections Become Putin’s Next Target” Bloomberg, November 9, 2017, accessed December 14, 2017,

[ii] Eli Meixler, “Mexico: 2017 Saw Mexico’s Highest Ever Murder Rate,” Time, January 22, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018,

[iii] “Unprecedented Wave of Political Violence Rocks Mexico,” Public Radio International, accessed June 22, 2018,

[iv] “Mexico’s Controversial Internal Security Law Explained,” TeleSUR, February 1, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018,

[v] Paul Vieira and Kim Mackrael, “U.S. Tariff Moves Jolt Nafta Talks,” Wall Street Journal, June 1, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018,

[vi] Laura Smith-Spark, “US Slumps in Global Poll after Trump’s 1st Year,” CNN, January 18, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018,

[vii] Stephanie Murray, Jack Shafer, Ramin Skibba, Todd Tucker, and Kevin Lippert, “Mexican Foreign Minister Calls U.S. Family Separations ‘Cruel and Inhumane,’” June 19, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018,

[viii] Dave Graham, “Mexico Presidency Tace Tightens; Leftist Stays Out Front: Poll,” Reuters, January 29, 2018, accessed February 4, 2018,

[ix] “Mexico’s Populist Would-be President,” Economist, March 16, 2017, accessed December 12, 2017,

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Carrie Kahn, “Mexican Leftist Politician Rising In Polls With Anti-American Rhetoric,” NPR, March 12, 2017,

[xii] Carrie Kahn, “How Mexico’s López Obrador Has Become The Man To Beat In His 3rd Run For President,” NPR, June 13, 2018, accessed June 22, 2018,

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ana Isabel Martinez, Anahi Rama, and Anthony Esposito, “Mexico Urges Respect from U.S. for 2018 Presidential Election,” Reuters, April 06, 2017, accessed December 12, 2017,

[xv] Carlos M. Rodriguez, “Mexican Election Coverage,” Bloomberg, February 26, 2018, accessed June 27, 2018,

[xvi] U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond, by Clare Seelke and Kristin M. Finklea, R41349 (2017), 2 and 14.

[xvii] Azam Ahmed, “El Chapo, Mexican Drug Kingpin, Is Extradited to U.S,” New York Times, January 19, 2017, accessed June 22, 2018,

[xviii] “Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America,” International Crisis Group, October 25, 2017, accessed June 22, 2018,

[xix] U.S. Trade Representative, “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),” accessed June 22, 2018,

[xx] U.S. Trade Representative, “Mexico,” United States Trade Representative, accessed June 18, 2018,

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Alexia Fernández Campbell, “Nearly 5 Million U.S. Jobs Depend on Trade With Mexico,” Atlantic, December 9, 2016, accessed June 22, 2018,

[xxiii] Patrick Gillespie, “Messing with NAFTA: 14 Million American Jobs Are on the Line.” CNNMoney, accessed December 14, 2017,

[xxiv] David Dollar, “China’s Investment in Latin America,” Geoeconomics and Global Issues 4, (2017): 1, accessed June 18, 2018,

[xxv] David Alire Garcia, Noe Torres, Jeff Mason, and Jack Stubbs, “Russia Meddling in Mexican Election: White House Aide McMaster,” Reuters, January 07, 2018, accessed February 4, 2018,

[xxvi] Javier Lesaca, David Salvo, Evan Ellis, and Richard Miiles, “Will the Russians Meddle in Latin American Elections?” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 30, 2018, accessed June 23, 2018,



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