Thousands of triumphant supporters crowded the main square of the Mexican capital two years ago to celebrate the resounding victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador – who captured more than half the votes in the presidential election, pledging to improve the lives of the poor, root out rampant corruption and fundamentally alter his predecessors’ approach to combating the country’s spiralling drug-fuelled violence.
But instead of the sweeping change that captured the imagination of millions of Mexicans who were fed up with traditional politicians, the left-wing leader’s time in office has been beset by a badly managed pandemic, economic recession, a record-high homicide rate, and pressure from the Trump administration to curb US-bound migrants.
“In terms of the facts on the ground, the situation in Mexico today is worse than it was before he took office,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director at the Mexico Institute of the Wilson Center.
“Whether you blame him for that or not,” Wilson told Al Jazeera, “the simple reality is Mexico is a more violent country today than it was two years ago; it’s a poorer country, and in the middle of a pandemic, it’s a less healthy country.”
Since he took office in December 2018, he is credited with putting in place scholarships and grants, as well as training and employment programmes for young people. He also expanded pensions to the elderly and government workers, and created a stipend for people with disabilities.
But the programmes are not expected to have a major effect on an economy that is forecast to contract by as much as 8.8 percent this year.
Last week, Lopez Obrador said he would be travelling to the United States to meet President Donald Trump to mark the rolling out of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal and to thank Trump for medical support during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are going to attend because we care very much about participating in the launch of this agreement, which I consider historical and very timely, precisely because it will help us to recover our economy and create jobs,” he said during his daily news conference.
But the trip, which Mexican officials said will take place on July 8-9, is Lopez Obrador’s first abroad and drew a slew of criticism, because of its timing, in the middle of a worsening pandemic, and because it is to meet Trump, a leader who likened Mexican migrants to rapists and drug dealers in his 2016 presidential campaign.
The austere leader, known by his acronym AMLO, who eschewed living in the lavish presidential residence and slashed his own salary, said he and his team, which includes the foreign minister, would fly commercial, even though there are currently no direct flights to Washington due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are huge questions surrounding the visit, and it leaves sceptics thinking that he is looking for something to distract from the challenging scenario at home,” Wilson said.
His disapproval ratings, 37 percent according to the latest poll, up from 19 percent when he first took office, are at an all-time high.
‘Incompetence and bad luck’
Although the spread of COVID-19 took the world by surprise back in January, observers said Mexico had ample warning, as cases of the coronavirus only began to surface in late March.
Lopez Obrador, who had not been seen in public wearing a mask, downplayed the dangers of the virus, refused to shut down the country’s borders and, up until April, was attending large rallies during which he was hugging and posing for pictures with his supporters.
“He underestimated the gravity of what could happen,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at the Baker Institute.
“A combination of incompetence and bad luck has essentially put Lopez Obrador at a huge disadvantage,” Payan said.
Though the country began to gradually reopen in early June, the numbers of COVID-19 infections and fatalities continue to rise, with more than 226,000 confirmed cases and 27,769 deaths, according to the latest count.
Detentions and deportations
Under growing pressure from the US government, AMLO’s immigration policy shifted from one promising to create programmes in Central America that would tackle the root cause of migration, to another characterised by militarised enforcement.
Last year, Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico unless it worked to stem the flow of Central American migrants heading to the US border.
Lopez Obrador sent a team to Washington to negotiate. Ultimately, Mexico agreed to deploy thousands of forces to its southern border with Guatemala.
“All of the initial good intentions were put to an end by the Mexican government’s calculation that it was better to appease the Trump administration to avoid economic sanctions than stand up to what it had committed to do which is treat migrants in a humane manner,” said Maureen Meyer, director for Mexico and Migrant Rights in the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The policies that have been put in place have prioritised detentions and deportations than respecting migrants’ rights,” Meyer told Al Jazeera.
Under a policy implemented in January 2019, called the “Remain in Mexico” programme, tens of thousands of asylum seekers are required to wait in Mexico, often in squalid conditions, for court dates in the US.
‘More of the same’
Highlighting a worsening security crisis, Mexico City’s police chief was shot three times on Friday, and two of his bodyguards and a bystander were killed in a shocking military-style operation.
The attack, allegedly perpetrated by the hyper-violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, followed a series of similarly brazen shootings and assassinations across the country. Earlier in June, a federal judge who had tried a number of organised crime cases, and his wife were shot dead in their home in the state of Colima.
A year ago, in an attempt to curb violence, Lopez Obrador introduced the National Guard. The new civilian police force was supposed to be a break from the militarised war on drugs that former Mexican President Felipe Calderon waged back in 2006.
But instead of confronting crime, thousands from the force were dispatched to the country’s southern border with Guatemala to stem the flow of migrants headed to the US.
And despite the government’s assertion that it would have a civilian character, overseen by a civilian authority, the force is commanded by a military officer and made up of active-duty soldiers and federal police officers. They are equipped with assault rifles, ballistic helmets and body armour.
Critics said the new force has amounted to yet another iteration of a tried and failed strategy to deploy heavy militarised power to fight crime, that will further complicate the criminal landscape, and lead to more violence.
In the first four months of 2020, 11,535 people were murdered, an all-time high. Last year also shattered records with 34,582 homicides.
“Everything he (Lopez Obrador) has put into place in terms of security has either been amateur or just very papered over in terms of political rhetoric,” said Gladys McCormick, a security analyst at Syracuse University in New York.
“The optics of what is happening on this two year anniversary are disheartening for what lays ahead,” McCormick added, “because what we are essentially going to get is more of the same.”