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Mexico set to elect leftist president for first time in decades

Andrés Manuel López Obrador waved to supporters last week during a rally in Mexico City.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador waved to supporters last week during a rally in Mexico City.(Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press)

MEXICO CITY — With Mexico coming off its deadliest year in recent history, a leftist candidate is heavily favored in Sunday’s presidential vote for the first time in decades.

Public outrage over violence, corruption, and poverty are steering Mexicans to the left, and polls indicate Andrés Manuel López Obrador could win by a landslide.

López Obrador, a three-time candidate for president, has a deep connection with the poor and has promised to sell the presidential plane and convert the presidential palace to a park. He also believes the best way to deal with violence is to alleviate economic deprivation.

Record amounts of opioids and cocaine are being seized en route to the United States. Mexico’s army patrols cities in large parts of the country, and its navy is conducting raids on drug cartel. But the problem persists.

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‘‘You can’t fight fire with fire,’’ López Obrador has said, while adding that he wants to maintain a security partnership with the United States.

The next president’s approach will probably have far-reaching consequences on both sides of the border. It could affect how much heroin and other opiates circulate in American cities, how many Mexicans cross into the United States fleeing violence, and how much illicit narco-cash floods Mexican society, corrupting police and politicians.

Violence has reached record levels in Mexico, with nearly 30,000 homicides last year, the highest in two decades of available statistics.

Traditional drug cartels have splintered into increasingly violent rival factions that extort, kidnap, steal gas, and rob trains, in addition to selling drugs. During the campaign, which also included races for governors and national and regional lawmakers, about 130 politicians and campaign workers have been killed.

‘‘Insecurity is the number one problem in the country,’’ said Marcos Fastlicht, a prominent businessman and one of six security advisers on López Obrador’s team.

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But López Obrador’s vague proposals have left security experts confused about whether he represents a fundamental departure from how previous Mexican presidents have dealt with drugs and violence, and whether he might weaken the security partnership with the United States.

Over the past two Mexican administrations, US agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI have worked especially closely with their Mexican counterparts in the hunt for drug traffickers, providing intelligence and equipment, and partnering on missions.

López Obrador is a longtime leftist politician who has steadily moved to the center in recent years. Before the last election in 2012, he called for blocking US intelligence work in Mexico. In this campaign, however, he has called for a robust relationship with the United States on trade and security.

‘‘I believe that there will be continuity in the security cooperation’’ with the US government, said Jorge Chabat, a security analyst and professor at the University of Guadalajara. ‘‘I have no doubt that he will have a period of rethinking security cooperation but I don’t believe that there will be real changes.’’

Others say profound change is possible.

‘‘The bottom line is he’s not going to fight the drug war in the way that it’s been fought in the last few decades,’’ said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who is an expert on security issues in Mexico. ‘‘That is potentially a huge change.’’

López Obrador and his team of security advisers have pointed to extreme poverty as the ultimate source of Mexico’s insecurity and say they will offer jobs and scholarships to woo vulnerable Mexican youth away from cartels.

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The candidate has also floated the idea of an amnesty for those involved in the drug business — a plan that sparked instant controversy, and was followed by assurances from his aides that it would be limited to farmers growing drug crops.

López Obrador has also opened the door to legalization of drugs — until now, Mexico has decriminalized personal possession of small amounts of marijuana — and does not appear interested in ratcheting up confrontations with the cartels.

He has called for taking the military out of police-type work against drug gangs.

However, López Obrador is not rushing to withdraw the military from cities; his goal is to do it over three years, according to one of his security advisers. And he has proposed a new 300,000-member National Guard of military and police with better coordination.

López Obrador and his advisers insisted that he won’t be setting violent criminals free but would rather prevent the prosecution of poor farmers who plant marijuana and opium poppy.

López Obrador’s security advisers insist that they want to preserve a good working relationship with US security agencies, including the DEA. The DEA and other agencies often provide the intelligence that leads to arrests of high-level drug traffickers.