Photo: Fernando Llano, AP
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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivers his first annual report on the state of the union Sunday, less than a year after he took office Dec. 1. The president sets the agenda most days with a morning press conference, delivered with a smile and often followed by visits to small towns where he is received by jubilant supporters. Approval ratings remain sky-high for López Obrador, who won office in a landslide July 2018 election. However, brutal violence and a flagging economy threaten to chip away at his popularity.
Here’s how he’s doing in key areas of governance:
VIOLENCE RISES TO NEW HEIGHTS
Cartel violence, once confined to a few northern cities, has spread throughout the country. And, increasingly, innocent bystanders such as restaurant patrons and children are being killed.
Homicides soared to nearly 35,000 last year, up from 27,000 during the 2011 peak of the government’s confrontations with cartels. At least 40,000 Mexicans have been reported missing in recent decades; many believe their remains to be scattered across hundreds of makeshift graves dug in fields and the backyards of homes.
López Obrador’s oft-repeated response to reports of violence, including against Mexican security forces, is “hugs not bullets” and “the people are good and wise.”
The president acknowledges that violent crime is the most serious challenge he faces. The federal government has assembled a National Guard force to improve security, pulling recruits from the military and police.
Lisa Sánchez, director of Mexicans United Against Crime, views López Obrador’s approach to crime as “more of the same,” saying he has taken a militarized approach that reacts to crime rather than trying to prevent it.
But there aren’t enough boots on the ground: even if the National Guard achieves recruiting goals, it would only have one officer for every 1,000 inhabitants of Mexico.
Their mission has also been diverted largely to immigration enforcement, as Mexico makes it more difficult for mostly Central American migrants to traverse the country en route to the U.S., under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mexico’s economy tends to slow down at the beginning of each six-year presidential term as the outgoing government turns off the spending spigot and the incoming one finds its bearings.
But this change of guard has been more dramatic as López Obrador embarks on a philosophical overhaul that he calls the Fourth Transformation, comparing his rule to a shift of course on par with Mexico’s independence from Spain.
The economy under López Obrador is flirting with recession. Gross domestic product growth was just 0.2% over the first half of 2019, down from 1.9% the previous year, and Mexico’s central bank recently downgraded its annual growth forecast to the 0.2%-0.7% range.
Some factors hitting the economy are external, such as the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, which has thrashed global markets.
As recently as June, Trump also threatened to slap tariffs on Mexican imports despite having negotiated a new free trade agreement for North America last year. The Mexican congress has already ratified the deal, but U.S. legislators appear in no rush to sign off on it.
Some of López Obrador’s own actions have bruised investor confidence, especially the cancellation of a $13 billion new airport for Mexico City that was already one-third built. And his austerity program has slashed spending to the bone. Consumer spending has been weak amid widespread layoffs and salary cuts for government employees.
Valeria Moy, director of the think tank Mexico, Como Vamos, feels the country is going backward as the president unravels programs and institutions.
“The whole administration revolves around the figure of the president,” she says. “How can you trust in a country where everything changes when the president changes?”
Analyst Alfredo Coutiño of Moody’s Analytics warns that “if investors remain reticent,” the economy could report no growth or a mild contraction in 2019.
CORRUPTION A TOUGH WEED TO UPROOT
López Obrador campaigned on promises to staunch widespread corruption. It’s a gargantuan task: Mexico scored 28 out of 100 points in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, where a lower score indicates higher levels of corruption.
That puts Mexico on par with Russia and behind countries such as Bolivia and Honduras in clean business dealings.
Ricardo Alvarado, a researcher with civic group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, says that while López Obrador was able to capitalize during the election on the anger and frustration in society over corruption, his administration has yet to put forth a concrete plan to address the issue.
“The fight against corruption is more in the president’s discourse than in practice,” says Alvarado.
The crackdowns that have occurred have been messy, with sometimes dire consequences.
The administration kicked off with a full-on confrontation in January against fuel thieves that tap pipelines, resorting to tanker trucks to transport gasoline. That led to widespread gas shortages. When gasoline began to flow again from one refinery in central Mexico, residents flocked to a pipeline gusher to fill buckets. The gusher exploded into flames, killing nearly 100 people.
The López Obrador administration has also taken a slash-and-burn approach to programs and expenditures, sometimes with a high cost for beneficiaries.
For instance, in response to suspected bribes being paid out for medicine sold to the national health care system, the government halted purchases, resulting in shortages of vaccines and lifesaving drugs for patients with conditions such as HIV.
The president vowed not to embark on a witch hunt against members of previous governments. Nonetheless, his administration has issued an arrest warrant for the former director of national oil company Pemex, for allegedly having received bribes in exchange for public contracts.
Also, the secretary of social development under the previous president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has been jailed pending investigations into the alleged diversion of $260 million in public funds.
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.