Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told his countrymen this weekend, in video announcements, "Don't go out into the streets unless it's for something absolutely necessary." But the president, who's been slow to acknowledge the new coronavirus threat, drew sharp criticism for failing to model good social distancing.
As recently as eight days ago, López Obrador urged Mexicans to go out to eat in restaurants, out of concern over an economic fallout from the virus.
On Saturday, however, Mexican health officials warned time was running short to stave off a spike in coronavirus cases. Mexico has reported nearly 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 20 deaths. "This is the last chance we have, we can't lose it," said Hugo López-Gatell, undersecretary of health, urging Mexicans to stay inside.
But López Obrador was not by his health official's side. He was out in the countryside inspecting construction projects, which he deems "essential" work exempt from stay-at-home orders.
Although the president asked supporters to keep their distance, he ignored his own advice. In a video shared on social media, the president is seen in Sinaloa state approaching a white SUV to shake the hand of its passenger — the 92-year-old mother of convicted drug trafficker Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.
The president assures Guzmán's mother that he received her letter and then the trafficker's lawyer, also on the scene, puts his arm around the president and accompanies him back to the official convoy.
President López Obrador just released the letter he received from Chapo Guzman's 92-year old mother. She's hoping the Mexican president will help her secure a US visa to visit her son in a Colorado prison, before she dies. pic.twitter.com/INlPPt6I7B— Carrie Kahn (@ckahn) March 30, 2020
At his Monday morning press conference, López Obrador shrugged off criticism of his pressing the flesh. He lashed out at opponents who, he said, wanted to derail his anti-corruption campaign.
"As I've said before the fatal plague here is corruption, not an elderly woman that deserves my respect, regardless of who her son is," said López Obrador.
The hardest thing for him in the time of the coronavirus, he said, is not being able to give hugs and shake hands. "So how am I not going to give my hand to a woman? How am I to leave her outstretched hand hanging?" he asked.
López Obrador said Guzmán's mother had come to his event to ask for help securing a U.S. visa to visit her son, who is serving a life sentence in a federal maximum security prison in Colorado. The president said he is willing to intervene on her behalf. And Monday, he made her letter public.