Mexico’s drug war has burst into flames again, the economy is flat, the health care system is creaking and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — facing the wrath of U.S. President Donald Trump — has cracked down on Central American migrants harder than ever.
Yet López Obrador, once known for being angry and irascible after years of losing presidential bids, almost never loses his smile at the news conferences he has held almost every morning since taking office Dec. 1. He is scheduled to give his first state of the union address Sunday.
In some ways, it is a Teflon presidency: Little sticks to Lopez Obrador because he is so quick to smile and say “peace and love” to adversaries. It doesn’t hurt that the opposition is so discredited, disheartened and disorganized that on most major issues its voice isn’t even heard over Lopez Obrador’s daily din.
But despite his cheery phrases — “hugs not bullets” as a way to fight drug cartel violence — a grim reality is sinking in, as with the killing of 28 people in a fire attack this week on a nightclub in the southern Mexico oil town of Coatzacoalcos.
Lenit Enriquez Orozco, who has led a group of relatives of the disappeared in Coatzacoalcos after her own brother vanished in 2015, said this week that the drug cartels “are feeling very empowered.”
“Lopez Obrador says the people are happy, but this is not what you would call being happy,” she said, motioning to the grieving families of the nightclub victims.
The president has been adept at shunting blame onto subordinates. When an assistant interior secretary went on a tour to meet with vigilantes — many of whom are linked to drug gangs — Lopez Obrador said he disapproved of the visits, despite the fact he has endorsed ideas like dialogue and amnesties for some.
His government is willing to declare victory and walk away from some problems. He launched his administration with an offensive against fuel thefts and declared the problem 95% eradicated, despite the fact the number of illegal pipeline taps has remained steady and the amount of legal gasoline sold has not increased, something that would be expected if the black market disappeared.
López Obrador has also managed to make the news largely about himself — using his daily news conferences much as Trump relies on Twitter.
There is one central message to López Obrador’s first nine months in office: He is close to the people and listening.
His morning news conferences are usually followed by afternoon visits to small-town hospitals, with television cutaways to adoring crowds or videos showing him eating at local restaurants.
“We have a lot of confidence in this man,” said Eduardo Calvillo, who runs a market stall in a low-income Mexico City neighborhood where Calvillo says new streetlights and more police patrols have appeared since López Obrador and a closely allied mayor took office. “This is a man who gets down to see where the problems and the conflicts are, and tries to think of some solution.”
Fernando Hernández, a Mexico City property developer, understands the class divisions, anger at corruption and need for change that drove López Obrador’s election victory. He is originally from López Obrador’s home state of Tabasco. But, he said, “I really thought there was going to be more coherence in the change, it would be more educated, more capable.”
Instead, he said, López Obrador has been loath to listen to criticism, suggestions or the advice of experts.
The president often says “I have other facts” when asked to explain discrepancies. López Obrador is obstinate, and he hates to spend money, sharply cutting government spending and salaries in a way few more conservative governments could get away with.
The cuts briefly left the parents of children with cancer without their chemotherapy treatments, prompting them to demonstrate at the Mexico City airport.
“What I am seeing is budget-cutting done with a machete,” Hernández said. “Public health care has been devastated by cutbacks.”
“He is very obstinate, very good at what he does. He’s a great politician, but he needs to focus more on what people tell him.”
López Obrador would gladly be judged on his main campaign promise — fighting corruption — but even there, despite his squeaky-clean personal reputation, the level of no-bid contracts handed out in the first nine months of the administration is about the same as under his predecessors, said Ricardo Alvarado, a researcher for the civic group Mexicans Against Corruption.
López Obrador dismisses many non-governmental groups like Alvarado’s as fronts for conservatives and business interests. Indeed, Mexicans Against Corruption has launched dozens of legal challenges to one of López Obrador’s pet projects — converting an air force base into a new Mexico City airport — in part because the president canceled a partly built, more expensive airport project that business groups say made more sense.
“This is a political stance, and part of what got him the presidency, which is to rule out any project that isn’t his,” Alvarado said.
Like Trump and his border wall, Lopez Obrador is obsessed with his own big infrastructure project — a train making a tourist circuit around the Yucatan peninsula that most experts say makes little environmental or financial sense.
Another of the president’s pet projects is the newly created National Guard, a military-dominated amalgam of soldiers and civilian police that he hopes can take on the drug cartels and common crime.
Human rights groups worry the Mexican military, which has been implicated in rights abuses in the past, will now be given free rein.
“This has been an administration that has had two sides, and swung back and forth” on human rights, said Santiago Aguirre, the head of the Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center.
On one hand, Lopez Obrador has tried to free “political prisoners” and taken more seriously the search for the country’s 40,000 missing people, but on the other, it has loosened civilian oversight of law enforcement.
More than anything else, experts are worried that the anti-crime strategy won’t work and that Lopez Obrador — like the two presidents before him — will go down in history as someone who couldn’t win against Mexico’s drug cartels.
“The underlying problem is that his strategy is to put boots on the ground, cover territory … but there isn’t enough to go around,” said Mexico security analyst Alejandro Hope.
Hope said that even if the National Guard achieves recruiting goals, it would only have one officer for every 1,000 inhabitants of Mexico next year. “That isn’t even nearly enough,” he said.
For many Mexicans, it is Lopez Obrador’s fascination with the past that limits him. He likes the old bulwarks of Mexico: the slumping oil industry, the army, and small-scale agriculture. Lopez Obrador’s fascination with history led him to call his government “the fourth transformation,” comparing it to the 1810 independence uprising, 1857 Liberal movement, and 1910 revolution.
The problem for a country that desperately needs new solutions to problems like crime is “there is nothing particularly transformative about the fourth transformation,” Hope said.
The Mazatlan Post