MEXICO CITY – A blistering display of bare-knuckled political infighting broke out this week in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party, complete with secret wiretaps and allegations of drug cartel ties.
With Morena now dominant, the biggest question in Mexican politics has become what kind of internal divisions will hit the party — which is basically built around López Obrador — when he retires in 2024. The answer that emerged this week is that it probably won’t be pretty.
The bloodshed started, literally, on Friday, when Salvador Llamas, a member of Morena’s national committee, was gunned down in front of terrified diners at an upscale steak restaurant in the western city of Guadalajara.
The victim served as a local official in the resort of Puerto Vallarta, which like the rest of Jalisco state is dominated by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel. Strangely, Llamas was gunned down by a man who had been sitting with him at his table. Local prosecutors said the killing appeared to involve a drug cartel.
The killing reignited the ill-feeling from Morena’s internal party leadership elections in August, which were replete with accusations of ballot-stuffing and fraud; Llamas was elected by a suspiciously wide margin in that vote.
John Ackerman, a U.S.-born Morena dissident and academic, quickly tweeted that Llamas was “a narco from Vallarta, elected as a Morena committee member by voters bused to the polls.”
López Obrador said later there was no immediate evidence that Llamas was involved with the cartels.
Another feud burst open over the weekend, when a governor from the Gulf coast state of Campeche suggested she had embarrassing wiretap information on Ricardo Monreal, the head of Morena's Senate delegation.
Monreal has been running for the nomination to succeed López Obrador, who is barred from seeking reelection, despite the fact that Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has emerged as the clear favorite. Monreal’s campaign had been noisy and vocal enough that he claims the Morena leadership wants to shut him up.
Into that dispute stepped Gov. Layda Sansores, a flamboyant long-time ally of the president known for her bright red hair. When she took over as governor of Campeche, she somehow came into possession of embarrassing tapped telephone conversations involving some of Mexico’s top politicians.
Campeche is a long way from the centers of power, but Sansores’ state attorney general, Renato Sales, is the former head of Mexico’s national security council, and would certainly know how to get such recordings. Sales’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
However Sansores gets the tapes, she has used them in the past to trash the reputation of Alejandro Moreno, the head of the once-all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. On a weekly radio show she hosts, Sansores played a tape in which Moreno can be heard saying “with journalists, you have to kill them with hunger, not with bullets.”
On Tuesday, she presented a series of WhatsApp messages allegedly between Monreal and Moreno, in which Monreal appeared to offer to intervene with prosecutors to help solve Moreno's legal problems. Sansores did not specify how she got access to the conversations — “They fell into my hands,” she said — but said she had hundreds more yet to reveal.
Monreal had previously said that during his time in the opposition, he had been spied on by the ruling party, “but never by my own party.”
“This is a fratricidal war within Morena,” said Monreal. “It is unacceptable, unbelievable, that we are destroying ourselves from within.”
Hubert Carrera, a longtime newspaper columnist in Campeche, said he believes Sales has a surveillance unit and that Sansores is acting as an enforcer for López Obrador, who apparently doesn’t want to lower himself to play intraparty politics.
“The problem is that Ricardo Monreal isn’t submissive to Andrés Manuel López Obrador and is about to leave Morena,” said Carrera. “Andrés Manuel López Obrador has given orders to Layda Sansores to attack anyone, even within the National Regeneration Movement (the party's formal name) who interferes with the interests of his favorite pre-candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum.”
López Obrador — the only real force and political arbiter in the party he founded in 2013 — did little to discourage the infighting, or hide his affection for Sansores, saying, “I love her a lot, a lot.”
The president’s own political style hearkens back to the PRI’s glory days of the 1970s, when Mexico was flush with oil money and the government could reward loyal unions and farm groups with cash. Politics then was full of intrigue, back-room deals and sharp elbows as people jockeyed for the approval of the all-powerful president of the moment.
“The same logic, the same PRI style of doing politics, in some ways remains alive,” noted Ivonne Acuña Murillo, political science professor at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
López Obrador himself has played secretly taped telephone calls in his morning news briefings and has used supposedly confidential tax information to try to discredit a journalist he dislikes. Overall, the president said he wasn’t bothered too greatly by the Sansores-Monreal dispute.
“It doesn’t hurt us politically. It might even help,” López Obrador said Monday. “It certainly is in bad taste. In my view, this shouldn’t become the rule.”
López Obrador’s lack of concern may be in part due to the fact he has never tried very hard to build a real party; he is content to keep Morena as a reflection of his own outsized personality and has been happy to welcome discredited figures from the old ruling PRI party to find a new home in Morena.
Those elements are likely to clash with López Obrador’s more left-leaning, long-term followers once the president retires.
“When he goes, he is going to leave us in the hands of the devil,” Ackerman, the dissident, said recently.
Some leaders have already split from Morena, like the party’s former leader in the lower house of Congress, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo.
“The current government is cheap populism, and violates the rule of law,” Muñoz Ledo said last week.
Sheinbaum, the Mexico City mayor who appears likely to succeed López Obrador, lacks the president’s stature, charisma and political skill, and seems unlikely to be able to unite Morena.
“She doesn’t have the political experience,” Acuña Murillo said. “The prediction is that when López Obrador isn’t there anymore to control these groups, there is going to be a bigger conflict.”
It may be the biggest threat to Mexico’s political stability. “The opposition is so weak, the risk for Morena comes from within,” she said.