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AMLO, Mexico's departing president, reflects on his legacy and his country's ties to the U.S.

Pres. López Obrador: The 60 Minutes Interview
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:14

With less than a year left in office, what Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador does — or doesn't do — at the border can shape the next political chapter in the United States.

The White House witnessed López Obrador's power in December. After a record 250,000 migrants overwhelmed the U.S. southern border, President Biden called López Obrador and asked Mexico to help contain the flow of migrants. A month later, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol reported the number of migrant crossings dropped by 50%. 

With the ear of the White House, López Obrador proposed his fix to address the root causes of migration issues: asking the U.S. to commit $20 billion a year to poor countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, lift sanctions on Venezuela, end the Cuban embargo and legalize millions of law-abiding Mexicans living in the U.S. 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador  60 Minutes

In a candid interview with "60 Minutes," López Obrador reflected on his legacy, the border crisis and his new policy to fight the cartels.

His message was clear on immigration: the flow of migrants will continue if the U.S. doesn't address the root causes. López Obrador's critics, meanwhile, have said that what he is asking for to help secure the border is diplomatic blackmail.

"I am speaking frankly, we have to say things as they are, and I always say what I feel," López Obrador said in Spanish at the National Palace in Mexico City. "I always say what I think."

Why López Obrador says a border closure will never happen 

López Obrador is known for speaking his mind every weekday at his press conferences.

On the border, López Obrador said that when former President Donald Trump says he is going to shut down the border or build a wall, he's bluffing.

Despite their ideological differences and tensions at the border, López Obrador built a working relationship and a personal rapport with the former president.

In 2020, Mr. Trump hosted López Obrador at the White House to mark the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Speaking before the agreement was signed in the Rose Garden, Mr. Trump said that "the relationship between the United States and Mexico has never been closer." 

López Obrador doesn't think Trump will ever fully shut down the border "because he needs Mexico," the 70-year-old president said. 

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador  60 Minutes

"Because we understood each other very well, we signed an economic, a commercial agreement that has been favorable for both peoples, for both nations. He knows it," López Obrador said. "And President Biden is the same."

Last year, Mexico became America's top trading partner. He pointed to cars, noting that prices would spike by as much as $15,000 if the border were closed. 

"There are factories in Mexico and there are factories in the United States that are fundamental for all the consumers in the United States and all the consumers in Mexico," López Obrador said.

Cartels and fentanyl 

While Mexico is a big importer and exporter of goods, it's also a primary source for fentanyl and waypoint for other illegal drugs trafficked into the U.S. according to the U.S. State Department.

López Obrador is quick to point out that fentanyl is also produced in the U.S. and in Canada, and that most of the chemicals for its production come from Asia. Still, U.S. agencies link most of the fentanyl trafficking to cartels in Mexico. 

López Obrador has faced criticism for his approach to violence and organized crime. He has invested in college scholarships and job programs as part of an effort to lure young people away from the cartels, a policy he calls, "Hugs, Not Bullets." 

He dissolved the federal police and created a national guard to take over public security.

According to the Mexican government, homicides have dropped almost 20% since López Obrador took office in 2018. There are still around 30,000 homicides a year in Mexico, and some say nowhere near enough of those murders are prosecuted. 

"Of course we prosecute them," López Obrador said. "There is no impunity in Mexico. They all get prosecuted."

Sharyn ALfonsi and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Sharyn ALfonsi and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador  60 Minutes

According to México Evalúa, a Mexican think tank, about 5% of the country's homicides are prosecuted. And a study last year reported cartels have expanded their reach, employing an estimated 175,000 people to extort businesses and traffic migrants and drugs into the U.S. 

But might there be a way to mediate a truce with cartels, as some suggest?

"What you have to do with the criminals is apply the law. But I'm not going to establish contact, communication with a criminal," he said. 

Violence and corruption in elections, government 

During his campaign, López Obrador promised to root out corruption and reduce poverty and violent crime. He claims he has "basically" succeeded in completely getting rid of corruption. 

But Transparency International reports no improvement in the corruption problems that have plagued Mexico for decades. Last month, a large demonstration in the capital organized by critics of his government accused the president of trying to eliminate the country's democratic checks and balances.

On June 2, Mexico will have one of its largest elections. In addition to the presidency, 20,000 local positions are up for grabs. But organized crime is not sitting it out. 

Cartels have funded some candidates and preyed on others, experts say. Last month, two mayoral hopefuls were killed in the Pacific coast State of Guerrero. In February, two mayoral hopefuls in the state of Michoacán were killed by gunmen within hours of each other.

But López Obrador has made the point that there can be no rich government in a poor country – and leads by example. He cut his salary, sold the presidential jet and got rid of his predecessor's fleet of bulletproof cars – he prefers to travel in a low-key Volkswagen. 

"I can travel throughout the entire country without problem," he said. "There is no region that I cannot go and visit."

The president does not view the attacks on government officials and candidates as a threat to democracy. He said he believes candidates will be safe as they run for office.

López Obrador's hand-picked successor, former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, has a commanding lead in the polls and could become Mexico's first female president. López Obrador said he intends to retire from politics after he leaves office. 

López Obrador's legacy

Last year, the Mexican economy grew 3% and unemployment hit a record low. The president's critics say the growth isn't because of his policies, but rather in spite of them. 

López Obrador has directed billions to signature mega projects, including an oil refinery in his home state and a railroad through the Yucatan jungle to promote more tourism. 

"It is money very well invested. It is money saved by not permitting corruption," López Obrador said. 

During his term, nearly 10 million Mexicans have been lifted from poverty. López Obrador is known for railing against what he sees as the elite. 

The popular leftist has favored spending on social programs, doubling the minimum wage, increasing pensions and scholarships. His approval rating has remained high — above 60% for most of his presidency. 

Some of his critics have said he's popular because he gives people money. López Obrador said there's some truth to that. 

"Our formula is simple. It is not to allow corruption; not to make for an ostentatious government, for luxuries; and everything we save, we allocate to the people," he said.ffem

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