Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rejected allegations published in various news outlets allegedly linking his 2006 election campaign to infamous drug trafficking kingpins, calling the reports a “smear” tied to the country’s heated political climate.

Numerous reports were simultaneously published Tuesday in DW’s Spanish-language service, InSight Crime and the non-profit ProPublica website. The reports allege that Edgar Valdéz Villarreal, a one-time ally of the Sinaloa Cartel more commonly known in Mexico by his alias “La Barbie”, funneled US$2 million into López Obrador’s campaign via aides close to the now-president of Mexico. AMLO, as the president is commonly known, ran for the presidency in 2006, 2012, and 2018, having secured the country’s highest office on his third attempt.

The president was not alone in his criticism and timing of the reports. Mexican author and political commentator Viridiana Ríos wrote on social media that ProPublica was “playing politics” and that their story “serves to support the Trumpian rhetoric of ‘force and intervention’ towards Mexico.”

The main allegations in the reports suggest that AMLO’s then aide, Nicolás Mollinedo Bastar, had promised that a future López Obrador would look the other way when it came to operations of organized crime groups in exchange for financial support for AMLO’s campaign.

Languishing in the polls and seemingly unable to grow their support among the population, Mexico’s political opposition has recently shifted strategy, employing political operators famous for running dirty campaigns. One of the more recent allegations the opposition has leveled claims that López Obrador and his MORENA party are in cahoots with organized crime. This criticism has been echoed by voices inside the United States, including by the Baker Institute’s Tony Payan and David Frum, former speechwriter for US President George W. Bush, though no material evidence has been proffered.

Similarly, none of the recent reports offered any new material evidence to back up the serious allegations. Instead, the most recent reports rely exclusively on the word of the US officials, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and their criminal informants who, as the stories readily report, were interested in avoiding imprisonment.

“[ProPublica reporter] Tim [Golden] receives old information from the DEA, to which he adds nothing genuinely relevant,” wrote Ríos.

Likewise, Mexican academic and security expert Carlos Pérez Ricart wrote on social media that he did not find any of the reports convincing.

The main source of the allegations in the reports is Roberto López Nájera aka “Jennifer”, a figure with ties to La Barbie and little known outside of Mexico.

Inside Mexico, however, López Nájera is a widely discredited figure, a fact that the ProPublica report only reveals at the end of their report. ProPublica cites a May 2013 report by Mexican newsmagazine Proceso that publicly revealed for the first time the true identity of the informant until then only known as “Jennifer”.

López Nájera came to be seen as an untrustworthy figure that provided information to prosecutors that was politically convenient to then-President Felipe Calderón. The former Mexican president, who launched the so-called war on cartels early in his presidency, is mentioned sporadically in the ProPublica report and no mention is made of Genaro García Luna, Calderón’s right-hand man and security chief who was eventually convicted by a US court of drug trafficking.

“Yesterday’s publications are a story by [DEA] agents who seek to achieve in the media cycles what they could not prove before a prosecutor or their bosses. It is an act born of anger,” said Pérez Ricart.

Little is said in the reports about López Obrador’s testy relationship with the DEA. Although the ProPublica story makes mention of the Mexican president’s moves against the agency, it comes only at the end of the report and is framed in a way to suggest that his decisions to sideline the DEA’s allies in Mexico were driven by his unwillingness to work with US agencies and officials.

López Obrador’s landslide victory in 2018 came in part as a result of the Mexican population’s exasperation with the two preceding administrations’ security policies, which followed the US’s favored policy of arresting and extraditing drug-trafficking kingpins. Despite promises from Calderón and his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, little progress was made toward improving Mexico’s security situation. Under López Obrador homicides rates have remained high, but for the first time there is a marked decrease in violent crimes.  

The ProPublica report mentions López Obrador’s marginalization of “Mexican commando teams that had been the most trusted partner of U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence agencies”. The commando teams in question here are tied to the SEIDO—an investigations unit focused on organized crime—from the now-defunct Federal Police. This unit’s chief is likewise imprisoned in the US as a result of a drug-trafficking conviction.

“Testimonies that have never been validated are now suggested as true, with the sole argument that, according to ProPublica, Mexico has not confronted the drug trade with the force the USA would like—as if confronting it during Calderon’s presidency would have made a difference,” said Ríos.

By the DEA’s own admission, the source of their allegations had a credibility problem.

The reports also made no mention of regular leaks from DEA-linked individuals undermining AMLO’s security strategy. Unlike his predecessors, López Obrador has severely curtailed the ability of US agents to operate inside Mexico, even grounding a plane used by the DEA in its Mexico-based operations,rubbing the agency the wrong way.

“I read this story as an attack by one part of the DEA against the government of López Obrador during a critical moment in the presidential campaign,” wrote Pérez Ricart. “There is no other way of reading the manner and substance in which this story was published.”

Like Mexico, the US is also in an election year, and the reports come ahead of a presidential election in which Republican politicians, including Donald Trump, have said that they intend to make the topic of fentanyl trafficking from Mexico into the US an election issue.

Inside Mexico, these reports have been picked up by Mexican outlets that have already begun parroting the claims made.

“In Mexico, the report finds fertile ground as, amid our own polarization and electoral period, many will accept it as valid—without considering the weakness of the sources supporting it,” Ríos suggested.

During his habitual press conference, Mexican President López Obrador said he too found the timing suspect, saying it was no coincidence that these reports come as Mexico’s election heats up.

Polls suggest the AMLO protégé and former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum is set to win by a landslide on June 2.