By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Ever since he first took office in December 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has been pushing to consolidating his institutional power by dismantling independent institutions, mandating constitutional rewrites and discrediting his opponents through unsubstantiated charges of criminal activity.
One of the most notable victims of this latter political tactic has been the current governor of Tamaulipas and erstwhile presidential hopeful Francisco Javier García Cabeza de Vaca, who is now facing a federal arrest warrant and possible jail time for crimes he may have or may not have committed.
And while the ultimate fate of García Cabeza de Vaca may how rest in the hands of a criminal courtroom, the circumstances that brought him to this state are mired in mounting political game plan by López Obrador to silence any opposition and dispense with all regional powers.
So while AMLO has certainly placed García Cabeza de Vaca squarely in his political crosshairs, his real target is Mexico’s federalist system that grants specific sovereign rights to state governments.
Simply put, AMLO is a political centralist, and his blatant disregard for states’ constitutional rights has been at the crux of many a confrontation between his administration and regional leaders.
The hostilities between AMLO and García Cabeza de Vaca aren’t new.
In fact, they have been escalating over the course of the last 14 months, starting back in early 2020, when García Cabeza de Vaca, along with Nuevo León Governor Jaime Rodríguez “El Bronco” Rodríguez and Coahuila Governor Miguel Riquelme, formed the Coordination Northeast Covid-19 coalition, with the intention to forego AMLO’s political entangled National Vaccination Plan and confront the coronavirus pandemic on their own by purchasing vaccines to be administered to their citizenry
In order to meet that objective, the three governors demanded that the federal government provide more financial resources to strengthen health services in their states, which AMLO refused to do.
They also insisted on a revision of AMLO’s national budget plan, since their states were paying the highest taxes in the country while receiving the least federal funding.
Soon after, nine other governors — mostly from the industrialized north of Mexico, and all from opposition parties — joined the group and it expanded into the Federalist Alliance, a formidable front against AMLO and his budget plans.
Backed by the majority of their constituents, the Federal Alliance governors even went so far as to threaten to cede from Mexico and create their own nation if López Obrador did not back down.
But AMLO, with his tried and tired rallying cry of “primero los pobres” (“the poor come first”), remained steadfast in his crusade to democratize Mexico’s economy by stripping the wealth of the industrialized north and handing it over to the unproductive south.
Tensions increased as García Cabeza de Vaca took a leadership role in the north and turned his confrontation with the president into political capital within the conservative National Action Party (PAN), where he was being grooming as the likely presidential candidate in the 2024 elections.
That set AMLO off on a full-fledged war against García Cabeza de Vaca.
Using his daily morning press conferences as a bully pulpit, López Obrador began to make public accusations against the Tamaulipas governor, accusing him — without offering any evidence — of corruption, embezzlement and association with drug cartels.
By the end of July, AMLO decided to up the ante in the conflict, siccing the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) on García Cabeza de Vaca, his mother, his two brothers, his wife, his father-in-law and two other associates for allegedly operating companies that “served organized crime, engaged in money laundering and practiced corruption.”
And as if going after García Cabeza de Vaca’s entire family were not enough to stir the pot, AMLO also ordered the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Organized Crime to open an investigation of the PAN’s state leader for alleged operations with illicit resources from drug trafficking.
The FIU then began to “leak” information that alleged that its case against García Cabeza de Vaca was based on “evidence” (supposedly obtained by telephone, with no written confirmation) provided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicating that the governor was being investigated for “illicit enrichment, diversion of resources and tax fraud.”
But perhaps the coup de grâce in AMLO’s political crucifixion of García Cabeza de Vaca came in the form of the incendiary allegations made by the former director of Mexico’s state-run Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Emilio Lozoya.
Lozoya, who was arrested in Spain in February 2020 and subsequently extradited to Mexico to face charges of defrauding the government with an overpriced sale of the Agronitrogenados fertilizer company during the previous administration, agreed to serve as a “collaborating witness” for Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (FGR) in exchange for a cushy sentence for his alleged crimes.
And when the FGR suggested that he involve García Cabeza de Vaca in the Odebrecht embezzling case for which he was testifying, Lozoya was more than happy to oblige.
Earlier this month, the federal Attorney General’s Office filed more specific charges against García Cabeza de Vaca, alleging that he was involved in the triangulation of 42 million pesos to a “suspicious company” for the U.S. government.
But without solid evidence against García Cabeza de Vaca, and a clarification as to what “suspicious company” the charge was referring to, Mexico’s Supreme Court sided with the governor and, on Friday, May 14, dismissed the alleged embezzling case against him.
The court’s decision only served to antagonize AMLO even further, and, five days later, rather than accept the ruling, the president ordered yet another judge to issue an arrest warrant against Garcia Cabeza de Vaca and six other public officials who were allegedly involved in a money laundering ring.
Although as an acting government official, García Cabeza de Vaca is entitled to legal immunity, AMLO’s supermajority National Regeneration Movement (Morena) party in the Senate voted to remove that immunity.
The current whereabouts of García Cabeza de Vaca are unknown, although he has tweeted that he is still in command of Tamaulipas and will not give up his post.
Now, as tensions between the two are approaching an apex just days before Mexico’s largest — and, perhaps, most important — elections in recent history, AMLO is moving in for the political kill.
And if AMLO succeeds with stripping García Cabeza de Vaca of his governorship, it could constitute the final step in his plan to concentrate all political power in the National Palace.
And that is clearly AMLO’s endgame.