MEXICO CITY — The honeymoon is still going strong. Surveys — and his strong support on social media — suggest that millions of Mexicans still back President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, as he’s known) and are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The fact that 2019 is well on its way to becoming the most violent year in Mexico’s 21st-century history — if not its entire modern history — doesn’t seem particularly relevant to his supporters.
In the eyes of his supporters, AMLO is a consistent leader; he’s always there for them. I’m not aware of any other president in the world who holds a news conference nearly every day. When I attended one of them recently, no one prevented me from asking any questions. And AMLO likes to get close to his fans, even if it poses problems for his security detail. In order to work within the austerity measures he has called for, AMLO flies economy class and has put the presidential airplane up for sale. Fighting corruption is the central theme of his administration. He does what he says.
In addition, López Obrador made one of his most symbolic (and populist?) decisions when he refused to live in Mexico’s official presidential residence, known as Los Pinos. The compound has since been opened to the public and turned into a cultural center.
I recently visited Los Pinos, and it remains an astonishing reminder of the former luxury and extravagance of the presidential lifestyle. A separate house was built for former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s dogs, one official told me. I saw tennis courts and mini soccer pitches made out of synthetic turf. I took a stroll along a promenade lined with the sculptured figures of former presidents.
But what struck me the most about Los Pinos was the condition in which the many houses, rooms and offices were left: almost empty; a series of bland, white boxes containing only loose cables. In one bedroom, it even looked as if someone had pulled the wooden window frames from the walls. I completely understand why AMLO wouldn’t want to live in Los Pinos, though one could also argue that living in the National Palace is not exactly a sign of restraint.
Although AMLO’s economic policies are questionable — Mexico could soon be entering a recession — there’s no doubt that he has changed the image and direction of the presidency, and that public affairs now come before private matters. His huge failure so far, however, has been his inability to crack down on crime. (The recent attack at a bar in the Gulf Coast city of Coatzacoalcos was reportedly even worse than the El Paso shooting in the United States.)
The numbers are overwhelming. Between Dec. 1, 2018, and this August, 23,027 Mexicans were killed. These are the government’s official figures. Killings of women and girls are out of control: 662 were murdered during the period. And Mexican journalists continue to die; it remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters.
This isn’t normal. The first year of López Obrador’s presidency may turn out to be the most violent of our lives.
It’s true that violence has been a major concern from as long ago as 2006, when President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drugs. The National Guard — AMLO’s proposed solution — became operational only in June, and is expected to have roughly 80,000 troops by the end of this year. Up until now, however, there has been no sign that the president’s crime-fighting strategy is working.
We should take AMLO at his word. “I don’t want to keep saying that the previous administration is responsible, or blaming those who were there before,” he said recently. “Now we are responsible. … We know. Mexico faces severe and huge problems, and we must face them.”
For the first time since his inauguration last year, AMLO has accepted responsibility for the dead. He’s right, they are his dead, and accepting that fact is vital. We could discuss other topics: the Mexico City airport project he canceled, whether legal action against former presidents is possible, even where the president’s family should sleep. But protecting Mexican lives should be the president’s top priority.
Prevent us from being mugged, kidnapped, killed and raped! That’s the cry for help from all Mexicans. And in this, López Obrador, like his two predecessors, has failed.
The AMLO honeymoon may well come to an abrupt end when people realize that their president can’t fulfill one of his main promises. And when the honeymoon is over, only nightmares await.