On Sunday, July 1, 2018, Mexico elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, as the new president. For Americans, election season usually turns into a sort of sporting event. Everyone has a favorite candidate, follows the campaign, and supports him or her. But in Mexico, the land of drug wars and corrupt politicians, this election season was more like gladiatorial games.

Violence and government corruption have been rampant in Mexico for many years. Since the kickoff of the election season, more than 120 activists and politicians have been murdered, and countless more threatened. Though most of these murders remain unsolved, it is a given that they have been the work of the various drug cartels and gangs throughout the country. But the gangs and cartels do not work entirely on their own. They employ many police officers and even have some politicians and officials in their pocket. For example, politician Fernando Ángeles Juárez was murdered a few weeks ago in Ocampo, Michoacán, and the entire police force in the town was detained by federal agents on suspicion of having a hand in the murder and corruption.

Why did the drug cartels join in this election season? There were about 3,400 public offices open in this election, and which candidates take these offices is more important to the cartels than to anyone else in Mexico. Why? Because the cartels are running a multi-billion-dollar, illegal business. They need lawmakers and officials in office who are either corrupt and will aid them in their crime or will at least turn a blind eye to their dealings. The last thing the cartels want is some gung ho activists who try to get the national homicide rate down, end cartel activity, and fight corruption.

It is very important to the cartels to have someone in office like the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who calmly watched the rise of violence in Mexico. Business Insider reported in April that during Nieto’s six-year presidency there were about 104,500 homicides registered. Just from January to March 2018, there were 6,553 homicide cases, which broke the record. If you break that number down, that means that there were about 85 people killed per day. It’s no wonder that many Mexicans now chant obscenities at Nieto.

Since Mexico’s laws limit presidents to only one six-year term, Nieto’s time was thankfully coming to an end. As new candidates started on the campaign trail, the Mexican people began looking for one who would fight corruption and not repeat the chaos that Nieto brought. AMLO stuck out as he used all the corruption and violence as a strong platform to campaign from. Knowing that the Mexican people were sick of the corruption and chaos in their country, AMLO began promising that he would fight corruption and the “mafia of power.” Also knowing that the majority of the Mexican population is deeply religious, he promised to fight corruption by seeking to morally regenerate the country.

AMLO began his political career in the 1970s with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the state of Tabasco, and now he is the leader of the leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party. At the end of his time as Mexico City’s mayor in 2005, he left office with high approval ratings and almost won the presidency the next year. Before winning the presidency, many were still unsure of AMLO’s policies because he has never been very clear or consistent since he has spent most of his career challenging whatever the status quo was. Since the status quo in Mexican government has been extreme corruption and a complete lack of any sort of moral or religious conscience, many Mexicans were ready to welcome AMLO with open arms.

AMLO’s promise of moral regeneration in Mexico included what he called a promotion of the “well-being of the soul.” The Associated Press reported that AMLO labeled himself a Christian in the “broad sense” and accepted the nomination of the Social Encounter Party, which is strongly influenced by evangelical churches. He also climbed onto the moral high ground during his campaign saying things like, “Let us all together draw up a moral constitution,” and “It is indispensable that we start a new current of thought that promotes a moral paradigm, love for one’s family, one’s neighbor, for nature, for our country.” No matter what AMLO’s personal faith and convictions are, his decision to grab onto religion and morality was a brilliant campaign tactic since Mexico is a deeply religious country with about 82 percent of the population claiming Catholicism. AMLO’s argument that a “moral regeneration” is one foundation needed to really clean up the country drew Christian support of all kinds to his side.

Though AMLO was supported, nominated, and voted for by many Christians, he has been careful to clarify that he is not trying to Christianize the government. He is just going to fight corruption and support moral regeneration to really get to the root of it. He is keeping the church and state very separate. The Associated Press reported him saying, “I do not believe this contradicts my theory of a secular state. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” His caution to keep church and state completely separate while still promoting morality to solve government corruption appealed to religious and non-religious Mexicans alike. After about 300 years of the church having a monopoly in the Mexican government and enforcing faith, Mexican people are very wary of mixing church and state. It wasn’t until 1992 that Mexico even restored relations with the Vatican. So AMLO’s promises to promote a religious type of morality and regeneration but still keep the government secular and removed from the church were very appealing to the Mexican majority.

AMLO’s wise targeting of corruption and morality, the two major pressure points of the Mexican people, won him a landslide victory on Sunday with a 53 percent majority, 30 percentage points higher than the next candidate. AMLO will begin his single, six-year term in December, and Mexicans hope that he will fulfill his promises to fight corruption and begin a moral regeneration. The US should likewise hope that AMLO can purge the government of corruption and start a regeneration in Mexico.

Why should the US care about what AMLO does in his country? The US shares 1,954 miles of border with Mexico; it is our third largest trade partner, second largest export market, and our connection with and buffer to Central America. On top of that, thousands of Mexicans are trying to get in. It’s important to pay attention to what is going on with our southern neighbor, especially since its government is horribly corrupt, its biggest business is drugs, and now the new president will try to solve these volatile issues.

The US-Mexico relationship, which was very strong during previous administrations, has been deteriorating since Trump’s rise to the White House. His ideas for a border wall, his crackdowns on immigration, his “America First” mentality, and his threats against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have put the US-Mexico relationship in jeopardy.

With a new Mexican president, this is Trump’s chance to fix the relationship without southern neighbor. The US needs to keep relations strong with Mexico because the financial ramifications for the US could be huge if Mexico’s weakness and corruption increases. According to the Heritage Foundation, US exports to Mexico is about $270 billion. Imports from Mexico, which on average contain 40 percent of content that Americans originally produced, have increased as well. So Trump’s America First mentality should actually spur the US to strengthen ties with Mexico and support AMLO as he tries to rid the government of corruption. A strong Mexico means strong trade relations that will benefit the US.

After AMLO’s victory, Trump tweeted “I look very much forward to working with him.” Hopefully this is true. AMLO has indicated though that he is no Trump fan and he is ready to go to the mattresses with Trump to protect Mexico’s interests, especially when it comes to immigration, the wall, and NAFTA. Previous Mexican presidents have been obsessed with gaining US approval, but AMLO is different. He has said that he doesn’t want Mexico to be completely dependent on the US, but he also wants to make Trump understand that developing Mexico and Central America will benefit everyone and help contain illegal immigration. Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, told Christian Today, “It means that the U.S. can’t take Mexico for granted anymore. Lopez Obrador will be pragmatic…but he’s not going to bend over backwards to have a good relationship.” Trump needs to take this opportunity to support AMLO and his goals for change in Mexico. A strong Mexico could be on the horizon with AMLO’s ideas for moral regeneration and fight against corruption.

Abigail Liebing is an intern at Providence and a student at Hillsdale College, pursuing a B.A. in History and a minor in Journalism.

Photo credit: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, via Wikipedia