Instead, he became a leading figure of Mexico’s left and now looks likely to become the country’s most controversial president in years — either its savior or a peerless threat to stability, depending on whom you ask. While his campaign against corruption and his defense of the poor have struck a chord with voters, some of his attacks on Mexico’s institutions and his economic proposals have made the private sector shudder.
How did “the American” become the face of Mexican populism? López Obrador’s rise traces the country’s growing irritation with violence, inequality and often wildly corrupt politics.
He grew up in a middle-class family, the son of a petroleum worker turned merchant in the epicenter of Mexico’s oil boom. His father’s oil salary bought his baseball glove and bat. But the dark side of the country’s state-owned oil industry wasn’t far away.
In his early 20s, López Obrador took a job working with an indigenous group called the Chontal Maya, some of Mexico’s poorest people, who happened to be sitting atop billions of dollars in untapped petroleum. The unfairness enraged him. He lived in a dirt-floor shack and slept on a hammock with his young wife. He cultivated a group of activists, poets and disaffected oilmen, meeting late in the night.
They railed against the system that López Obrador would later decry on the campaign trail — “the mafia of power,” he now calls it, those who used the government to enrich themselves. He called Tabasco the “laboratory of revolution.”
Oil was at the heart of that revolution.
“To him, Pemex was a monster, a symbol to defeat,” said Tere Jaber, a friend from López Obrador’s early activist days and a human rights lawyer in Tabasco, referring to Mexico’s national oil company.
López Obrador, now 64, began his political career with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had been at the heart of Mexico’s authoritarian system since 1929.
“At the time, there was no other option for an aspiring politician,” said José Agustín Ortiz Pinchetti, a former top aide to López Obrador who wrote a recent biography of him.
Even during his PRI days, López Obrador saw himself as an activist, representing the state of Tabasco in negotiations with Pemex, trying to convince oil workers that they should demand better wages and benefits. He named his son Jesús Ernesto after Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Marxist guerrilla who fought with Fidel Castro in Cuba. When a nonprofit group invited him to visit the United States, his only demand was that he get to tour a Native American reservation.
“For us, he was an inspiration, proof that we should fight for our rights,” said Raúl Drouaillet Patiño, a former oil worker in Tabasco, who met López Obrador during protests against Pemex.
But the PRI grew frustrated with López Obrador, considering him “a communist with Cuban instincts,” Ortiz Pinchetti writes in his book, “AMLO: With Both Feet on the Ground.”
In 1988, López Obrador left the PRI, joining a leftist opposition party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Although he ran and lost twice for governor of Tabasco — results that he said were fraudulent — López Obrador remained an icon of the opposition and rose to become the national leader of the PRD. He assailed the corruption he saw across the ruling party.
In 1991, he led protesters on a six-week march from Tabasco to Mexico City, demanding free and fair elections. In 1995, López Obrador demanded that people in Tabasco stop paying their electricity bills in response to what he deemed excessive utility costs — sparking a movement that continues today. In 1996, he organized blockades of oil facilities to demand compensation for fishermen and farmers affected by the industry’s unmitigated pollution. At one Pemex protest, López Obrador was hit in the face with a rock thrown by a police officer, blood spilling all over his clothes.
“He went to clean up, and he was back on the front lines within hours,” said Drouaillet Patiño.
López Obrador defined himself in opposition to the state. And yet, he never stopped aspiring to public office.
By the late 1990s, his activism helped him build a public profile that expanded beyond Tabasco. Even though López Obrador had no governing experience, he was elected mayor of Mexico City in 2000, the year the PRI finally lost the presidency. The mayor’s job was a position that gave him considerable influence and allowed him to show his pragmatic streak.
But that didn’t damage his popularity, which remained over 70 percent for much of his time in office. He launched several well-received social programs, providing pensions and subsidies to single mothers, disabled people and the elderly. He helped establish a retirement home for aging prostitutes; it was named after Xochiquetzal, an Aztec goddess. And he maintained an image of personal frugality, driving to work in an old Nissan every morning at 6.
'A punishment vote'
In 2006, he ran for president. His opponent, Felipe Calderón, called him a “danger to Mexico.” Calderón’s campaign showed images of López Obrador next to Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and argued that his populist policies would destroy Mexico’s rising economy.
At the time, López Obrador rejected parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a stance he has since abandoned. His critics said then — and continue to say — that López Obrador has a shaky grasp of national economic and public policy.
“You look at his books, and the only citations are Bible verses,” said Esteban Illades, the editor of Nexos magazine.
When he lost the election by half a percentage point, López Obrador alleged fraud and refused to accept the results. He and his supporters held protests in downtown Mexico City, blocking traffic and erecting encampments.
He ran again in 2012, losing by a larger margin to Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI. But since then, as Peña Nieto’s presidency has been buffeted by corruption scandals and a rising homicide rate, López Obrador’s popularity has soared. By this past March, he was leading his competitors in the presidential polls by more than eight points. By late June, he was up by 17 points.
“The best thing that happened to López Obrador is the Peña Nieto administration,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, an analyst at Mexico’s Center of Economic Investigation and Studies. “AMLO’s stance is the same, but now people are angrier and more eager for change.”
Some analysts are calling it a “voto de castigo,” or a punishment vote. And it’s a vote López Obrador has won not through cogent policy proposals but by presenting himself as the personification of frugality. He says he does not have a credit card or a checking account. He says he will refuse to live in the presidential mansion. Those claims draw huge applause at his rallies.
'He's not the same man'
This year, López Obrador has reached out to Mexico’s private sector and former members of the PRI, forming a campaign team that includes a range of advisers with seemingly discordant views. At a meeting with entrepreneurs in Tijuana, for example, he surprised many business executives by promoting the idea of a border economic zone that would encourage more foreign investment.
Some have raised concerns that López Obrador will clash with President Trump — he released a slim book called “Listen, Trump” last year, deriding the often negative influence of the United States in Mexico. But his advisers say he is taking a pragmatic approach to dealing with the U.S. president.
“He doesn’t see Trump as a lunatic. He sees him as making a political plan, and he wants to work with the United States on our shared interests,” said Marcelo Ebrard, a former mayor of Mexico City and an adviser to the candidate.
On the campaign trail, López Obrador once said he would not allow Mexico’s oil “to return to foreign hands.” But his advisers have met with millionaire American investment managers to assure them of López Obrador’s affinity for the free market.
The oil industry, which played such a huge role in his own political evolution, will be a crucial litmus test.
“Maybe he wants to nationalize Pemex,” said Ortiz Pinchetti, the former top aide, referring to a proposal to reverse a reform that allowed private and foreign oil contracts. “But he knows it’s not possible.”
Some of his old friends in Tabasco see a onetime aspiring revolutionary who became a centrist.
“He’s not the same man. Now he spends his time with PRI-istas and business executives. The talk of revolution is gone,” said Jaber, the longtime friend and human rights lawyer.
But López Obrador still mentions revolution on the campaign trail — just not the Cuba-like struggle to which he and his friends once aspired. Rather, it is built around him, his tastes, his trajectory — he calls it a revolution targeting Mexico’s political elite.
“I am from the village,” he said at a recent rally. “So there’s not going to be any luxury.”