It could be a scene from a John Le Carré novel: under a leaden sky, a grey-haired man in an overcoat looks out to sea and chuckles quietly at the prospect of a Russian submarine bearing a shipment of gold.
But the image came in a video this week by the leftwing frontrunner in Mexico’s presidential election, as he laughed off claims that he is receiving covert support from Moscow.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist former mayor of Mexico City, has become the focus of escalating – if unsubstantiated – allegations of Russian interference in the 1 July election.
Ya no soy peje, ahora soy AndresManuelovich pic.twitter.com/L1fzb5QGgX— Andrés Manuel (@lopezobrador_) January 18, 2018
In December, the US national security adviser HR McMaster said there had been “initial signs” of Russian meddling in Mexico. He offered no details, but the ruling PRI has made such claims a central plank of its campaign against López Obrador, popularly known as Amlo.
In response, Amlo this week posted the video in which he joked that he was waiting for a submarine to bring “gold from Moscow” and said he was now known as “Andrés Manuelovich”.
And as the presidential election draws closer, similar suspicions have been voiced in Mexico – though evidence remains elusive.
The Washington Post and Bloomberg have both run recent opinion columns arguing that a victory for Amlo would benefit Moscow. Such comments have been seized upon by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
“International media are documenting Russian and Venezuelan interests supporting López,” the party said in a statement.
But the suggestion that López Obrador is a Trojan horse for a foreign power has also brought back memories of the country’s contentious 2006 election, in which Amlo was ahead in the polls until attack ads compared him with the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez; Amlo’s support cratered and he lost by less than a percentage point.
Many Mexicans poured scorn on the idea that Russia could further destabilizing Mexico – which in 2017 had its most violent year in recent history – or undermine its democracy, which has long been plagued by vote-buying and excessive campaign spending.
“If the point of Russian intervention in the electoral process is to undermine confidence in democratic institutions, the truth is there isn’t much left to do in Mexico. The Mexican political class has already done this work, without their help,” tweeted Carlos Bravo Regidor, professor at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics.
The PRI has itself been accused of using armies of bots to spread fake narratives, hacking the communications of government critics and paying the press to boost its candidates. The party denies such wrongdoing.
But Amlo, a close friend of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, has drawn fire over his some of his close associates, including John Ackerman, an academic who often appears on the Spanish-language service of the Russian news channel RT.
Ackerman’s wife, Irma Sandoval has been tapped as a potential member of Amlo’s cabinet, and critics assert that his work with RT – often seen as a Kremlin propaganda channel – constitutes a conflict of interest.
“Ackerman’s work on Russia Today dangerously reduced the degrees of separation between Putin and López Obrador,” wrote the commentator León Krauze in El Universal.
Ackerman, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the Guardian that his work on RT is limited to a weekly commentary on social media and he has received no instructions from anyone.
Online, many Mexicans made fun of the allegations against Amlo, changing Twitter handles to cyrillic script and sharing gifs from Rocky IV.
But in a second column for the Washington Post, Krauze repeated his warnings: “The world knows very well what happened last time a country laughed off the possibility of Russian interference in a democratic process.”