MEXICO CITY — There’s one thing we all know not to do during the coronavirus pandemic: shake hands.
And we definitely know not to shake hands with the elderly.
Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, knows this too. After all, this is the advice of his health authorities.
But on Sunday, López Obrador traveled to Sinaloa in northern Mexico, where he shook the hand of a 92-year-old woman. And she wasn’t just any woman: She’s the mother of Mexico’s most infamous drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is currently serving life in prison in the US for drug, money laundering, and murder charges.
López Obrador said he was meeting with Guzmán’s mother at her request. In a video, he can be seen telling María Consuelo Loera that he had received a note from her. “Yes, yes, I got your letter,” López Obrador told her.
The gesture incensed Mexicans, already frustrated at the government’s sluggish response to the global pandemic.
Mexico is bracing for a spike in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks. During a taped message released Friday, López Obrador asked people to stay home. The following day, Mexico’s deputy health minister echoed the president’s statement. But no formal quarantine has been put in place.
Ignoring his own advice, and that of medical experts, López Obrador has continued to crisscross the country.
On Saturday, López Obrador traveled to Culiacán, where, speaking from his hotel balcony, he said that “coronavirus is not the plague.” One of the first people to get COVID-19 in Mexico had been a guest at that hotel shortly before, and the building had since been cleaned, he added.
On Sunday, it was the turn of Badiraguato, the birthplace of El Chapo. It was reportedly the birthday of Ovidio Guzmán López, one of the kingpin’s sons. In October, he was captured by security forces in Culiacán, only to be released hours later, following a cartel siege of the city.
López Obrador said he went to the area to supervise the construction of a road, but nonetheless defended his decision to meet the mother of Mexico’s most notorious drug lord. “She’s a 92-year-old woman,” he said during his morning conference on Monday, explaining why he greeted El Chapo’s mother. “She deserves all my respect, regardless of who her son is.”
After news of their encounter emerged, #narcopresidente began trending on Twitter.
“The doctors? The families? Social fears? Hospital shortages? Not the priorities…” tweeted Kenia López Rabadán, head of the Senate’s Human Rights Commission.
Some people interpreted López Obrador’s meeting as a form of distraction from the government’s fight against the pandemic. Others saw it as a way for the president, a populist who spent nearly two decades running for the top position before his electoral victory in 2018, to wrestle attention back from the country’s health officials.
López Obrador wants to take the spotlight back from the health officials who are giving daily briefings about the coronavirus, argues Ricardo Alvarado, who works at Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción, a watchdog group. Drug trafficking and national security are areas in “which these government specialists cannot intervene,” said Alvarado. “It’s about him being the protagonist.”
By Sunday, there were 993 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — including two state governors — and 20 deaths in Mexico, according to health authorities. But this is widely thought to be an underestimation of the gravity of the situation.
Only a handful of Latin American leaders have ignored the World Health Organization's recommendations in the midst of this crisis. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has criticized state lockdowns while calling for a return to normal life. Together, Brazil and Mexico govern more than half of the region’s population, where many workers live hand to mouth, and can little afford to take time off work if they are forced to go into quarantine.