MEXICO CITY — One candidate called for cutting off the hands of corrupt public servants to combat corruption, and creating military schools to instill discipline in children. Another suggested an amnesty for those caught up in the illegal drug trade.
There were few details provided for the most dramatic proposals, and the candidates were quick to abandon policy talk to attack the front-runner: left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. His proximity to power spooks the political and business elite, but he leads polls by double digits.
The race for the presidency is shaping up as a change election, with voters increasingly rejecting the status quo.
Sunday night’s debate centered on three themes: public safety and violence, combating corruption and impunity, and democracy and social inclusion.
These themes have turned urgent in Mexico as homicides have reached record levels partly because of a turf war between drug gangs. Meanwhile corruption scandals have ensnared the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and the country’s unpopular president, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Opponents have turned much of their rhetorical fire in the campaign against López Obrador, who’s promised to cut public officials’ salaries and sell the presidential airplane. He disparages the country’s political class as “the mafia in power.”
He’s said he will convene forums for solving the country’s security crisis — and will invite Pope Francis to attend — and has proposed offering an amnesty for those in the illegal drug business, arguing the current strategy of combating the cartels with soldiers isn’t working.
“You can’t confront violence with violence. You can’t put out fire with fire,” López Obrador said Sunday night. “Amnesty doesn’t mean impunity. . . . We have to attend to the causes that give rise to insecurity and violence, especially reducing poverty.”
Opponents scorned the idea, saying it let narcotics traffickers off the hook.
“What I’m going to do is defend families and I’m not going to give criminals an amnesty as López Obrador proposes,” retorted former first lady Margarita Zavala, who is running as an independent.
The United States is heavily involved in the drug fight in Mexico, and the amnesty idea presumably would raise eyebrows in Washington. Mexico has turned into the No. 1 source of heroin consumed in the United States in recent years as the cartels swap old standby crops like marijuana for more profitable ones like poppies.
The finer points of policy in Mexico’s election might be moot, however. Polls show Peña Nieto’s approval rating stuck in the low 20s and Mexicans overwhelmingly opining the country is heading down the wrong path.
“The reality of the country is such that we have to understand that AMLO voters are not angry, rather they have nothing to lose,” tweeted Viridiana Ríos, a Mexico scholar affiliated with the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, referring to López Obrador by his initials, as many Mexicans do.
“Purchasing power has fallen every year since 2009. The minimum wage is in real terms below where it was in 1995. The percentage of people who cannot acquire the basic food basket is much greater than it was in 2005.”
A former mayor of Mexico City from 2000 to 2005, López Obrador is pursuing the presidency for the third time, after losing in 2006 and 2012.
He champions the poor, but polls show him performing surprisingly well with educated Mexicans; 50 percent of university graduates would vote for him, according to the newspaper Reforma.
López Obrador’s speeches “sound very much like Trump’s [critiques] in their moment, which is: ‘They’ve tried this for 15 years and nothing has worked,’” said Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
“That’s an extremely strong critique and you’re not obliged to offer a slate of concrete policy corrections. Why try them again? Let’s try something new. Let’s shake it up.”
The latest Reforma poll put López Obrador 20 points up on Ricardo Anaya, candidate for an unconventional left-right coalition, who is in second place. José Antonio Meade, the candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary (PRI), is running a distant third.
Two independent candidates are on the ticket in 2018: Zavala, wife of ex-President Felipe Calderón, and Jaime Rodríguez, a cowboy-turned-governor better known as “El Bronco.”
Zavala has proposed “massive interventions” of federal security forces in the cities of Tijuana and León, hoping to replicate an initiative which her supporters say turned around Ciudad Juárez — once the murder capital of the world.
At the debate, Rodríguez induced groans after he proposed chopping off the hands of the corrupt and building “militarized” high schools, in which soldiers would give classes as part of an effort to instill discipline among youth.
Each of the candidates has taken turns talking back to Trump, especially after he accused Mexico recently of failing to stop a caravan of Central American migrants headed toward the U.S. border. Trump has vowed to build a massive wall on the border and rip up NAFTA if the treaty can’t be renegotiated.
Mexican voters, however, appear to be putting a priority on domestic policy, rather than relations with Trump.
“There is very little we can do about him,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics. “And deep down inside we know it.”