Mexican president shuns coronavirus, greets ‘El Chapo’s’ mother

It was bad enough that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was seen shaking hands with a 92-year-old woman Sunday, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

But what really upset many Mexicans was not that the president was failing to obey his own orders for social distancing, nor that the woman was elderly and therefore most at risk.

It was that she is the mother of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

A 30-second video of their brief meeting quickly went viral, and by Monday the phrase “Narco President” was trending on Twitter, along with hashtags about the importance of staying inside.

“The President, instead of canceling his tours and attending to the serious crisis caused by COVID-19, has prioritized meeting with the mother of a drug trafficker and the grandmother of a fugitive,” said a statement released Monday by a coalition of senators from the opposition National Action Party.

Journalist Pascal Beltrán del Río riffed on Twitter that the president had “failed to keep a healthy distance. In more ways than one.”

Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 struck Mexico in late February, López Obrador’s response to the pandemic has been erratic, and at times baffling.

For weeks he openly ignored the advice of public health officials, embracing supporters, kissing their children and joking that he was relying on good-luck charms to protect him in the crisis.

And he has continued his traditional weekend tours around the country, even as two Mexican governors with whom he recently met announced that they are positive for COVID-19, and his undersecretary of health, Hugo López-Gatell, begged Mexicans to stay home to contain the spread of the disease.

“This is the last chance we have. We can’t lose it,” López-Gatell said in a somber news briefing Saturday. “We are saying to everyone: ‘Stay at home.’ It’s the only way to reduce this virus.”

The government says 993 people have tested positive for the disease, and 20 have died from it.

On Saturday night, it looked like López Obrador might have turned a corner. He recorded a long video address in which he implored Mexicans to stay inside. “We have to be in our homes,” he said. “We have to maintain a safe distance.”

The next day, he traveled with a large caravan of people to the remote mountain hamlet of Badiraguato, Sinaloa, in a region known for marijuana and poppy cultivation. The president, who was accompanied by the state’s governor, said he was there to observe progress on construction of a new road.

At the entrance of the village of La Tuna, where Guzmán was born, the government caravan stopped, and López Obrador got out of his SUV and strode up to a shiny, white pickup truck, where Guzmán’s gray-haired mother, María Consuelo Loera Pérez, was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Don’t get out,” the president told her while shaking her hand. “I received your letter,” he said.

The president also spoke briefly with José Luis González Meza, a lawyer for the family.

At a news conference Monday in Mexico City, López Obrador explained that Guzmán’s mother had sent him a letter — for the second time — pleading for his help.

The March 20 letter, which the government made public, said she hopes to visit her son, who is in a maximum security prison in Colorado after being convicted last year on drug trafficking and murder charges.

“Unfortunately I must inform you that the efforts of your government to help me receive a humanitarian visa … have been rejected by the [U.S.] government,” said the letter, which was composed on a typewriter.

Loera begged López Obrador to continue to help her, and also took a jab at officials in the previous Mexican administration who had overseen Guzmán’s extradition, saying, “Nothing would make me and my family happier than seeing him in a Mexican prison, where he belongs.”

López Obrador told journalists that he would continue to support Loera for humanitarian reasons but added that the decision of whether to admit her to the prison ultimately depends on the U.S. government.

He said he was moved by her predicament.

“Mothers have a special and sublime love for their children,” said López Obrador, who said Loera told him “that she does not want to die” without seeing her son.

The exchange shocked many in Mexico, where organized crime has contributed to record high homicide rates in recent years. Some were quick to note that the president’s visit coincided with the 30th birthday of Guzmán’s son, Ovidio Guzmán López.

Last fall, Mexican federal forces briefly captured Ovidio Guzmán López at his home in the city of Culiacán. But when Sinaloa cartel gunmen took control of the city, taking hostages and blocking exits out of town, federal forces relented and released Guzmán López.

While some in Mexico praised the government’s decision to deescalate the situation in order to save civilian lives, others questioned whether Guzmán López’s release was a sign of collusion between the government and the cartel.

López Obrador rejects those claims. He has repeatedly said that, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t want a war with drug traffickers, saying the militarized approach of past governments didn’t work.

On Monday, he lashed out at his critics for turning the encounter with Guzmán’s mother into a “scandal” and said some of them had done more to hurt the country than she had.

“Sometimes I have to shake hands, because it is my job,” he said. “How could I not give my hand to a lady? How am I going to leave her with her hand waiting?”