Mexico stands by Lopez Obrador, poll says, even as violence soars, economy crumbles – The Dallas Morning News

TORREON, Mexico – As Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador marks his first year in office on Sunday, Mexicans’ romance with the left-leaning populist leader remains strong.

But a new poll conducted by Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper, co-sponsored by The Dallas Morning News and The Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center at Southern Methodist University, shows signs of fading enthusiasm as the nation faces weariness over shocking violence and slowing economic growth.

Additionally, Mexicans are divided in their opinions about the U.S. They overwhelmingly dislike Donald Trump, but more are planning to migrate north, according to the poll. Only 45% of people polled said they feel safe shopping in the U.S., while 44% said they felt unsafe.

The poll was taken more than three months after the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso that claimed the lives of 22 people, 8 of them Mexican citizens. Annually, Mexicans spend more than $4.5 billion in cross border trade with Texas, including food, clothing and auto parts, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Overall, López Obrador’s personal approval rating remains high – a whopping favorability rate of 68%, down two points from Reforma’s last poll in July. The approval ratings, however, defy how Mexicans feel about their country and its path forward. Only 33% believe the country is doing better; 40% say it’s the same and 25% say Mexico is worse off.

Similarly, 68% say López Obrador is failing on his signature campaign promises: Reducing organized crime and violence. Sixty-five percent say security is Mexico’s top problem.

“What we’re seeing is the president being well-positioned, despite insecurity being a warning sign, but in other areas he’s still well appreciated, particularly with his programs to lower poverty and the fight against corruption,” said Lorena Becerra, Reforma’s head pollster.

Fermin Compean (orange shirt) rides in back of truck near San Luis de Cordero, Durango, worries that security is unravelling around him.  We feel safe, but know bad luck is just around the corner,  noting the growing tension between cartel rivals in region.
Fermin Compean (orange shirt) rides in back of truck near San Luis de Cordero, Durango, worries that security is unravelling around him. We feel safe, but know bad luck is just around the corner, noting the growing tension between cartel rivals in region.(Alfredo Corchado / The Dallas Morning News)

The poll of 1,000 people interviewed face-to-face was conducted Nov. 21-26 in all 32 states in Mexico. It has a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.

The results, said political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor, are a testament to López Obrador’s style, not necessarily his policies. He pointed out that the president, known by his initials AMLO, thrives on his folksy anti-establishment, anti-media aura. His man-of-the-people strategy continues to captivate Mexicans.

“Regardless of his mistakes, or the lack of results, AMLO has gone lengths to cultivate an image of closeness to the people,” said Bravo Regidor, columnist and associate professor at CIDE, or Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, a higher education public research center in Mexico City.

“He sold the presidential plane, travels coach, takes selfies, speaks daily to the people,” said Bravo Regidor. “He has cultivated a sense of being part of the people… And there’s a premium on that. He might not end up being a great president, but at least he’s not a crook. He’s one of us, dresses like us, eats like us.”

But how long can López Obrador stave off what some see as growing discontent over violence and safety issues that are spiraling out of control as the nation copes with the worst economy in decades?

This year is expected to be the most violent year since the country began keeping track of crime statistics in 1997. More than 28,800 murders have been recorded since January.

Mexico’s economy is also headed for the most dismal performance since the early 1990s. Revised numbers showed Mexico’s GDP posting 0.1% contraction in each of the previous three quarters, meeting the conditions of a recession.

The general public opinion underscores research for an upcoming book on López Obrador by Mexico analyst David Shirk of the University of San Diego. While noting the intensity of his passionate supporters, he added that it’s crucial to “recognize this president started his term with the highest levels of criminal violence of any president in recent Mexican history, so there are probably people who are giving him the benefit of the doubt for a year or two.”

That’s reflected by interviews in Mexico, including in this northern border region which has close economic and familial ties to Texas.

“One year is not long enough,” said Torreón shoeshine vendor Jose Antonio Castañon, 42. On one recent evening, he watched friends twirling around the Plaza de Armas as music blared, part of a daily community activity. “Yes, I worried about rising prices, killings, extortions, kidnappings. But when I question that, I also think, surely AMLO has a plan. He’s been hungry for power for 18 years. I just hope he shows us the plan soon before we get really impatient.”

In the poll, 55% of those interviewed said López Obrador is succeeding at improving income for families. And 51% say he is succeeding at reducing poverty.

Lorena Armendariz, 50, routinely travels from Torreón to El Paso to shop. She said of López Obrador: “He’s creating jobs, programs for the neediest. Micro loans, student scholarships, something that hasn’t been done in years.” Yes, she’s worries about the economy and violence, but adds, “We need to give AMLO more time.”

Mexicans also overwhelmingly dislike Trump, as 75% said they have an unfavorable view of the U.S. president, a slight improvement from 77% in Reforma’s July poll.

Only 30% say the U.S.-Mexico relationship is good or very good.

“AMLO’s first year has been very mixed,” said James F. Hollifield, professor of international political economy and director of SMU’s Tower Center. “The Mexican economy is weakening and investment is off, especially from Texas, but to be fair to AMLO, a lot of the decline in Mexico is based on U.S. policy. Tariff threats clearly hurt the Mexican economy. It’s hard to disentangle AMLO in his first year from the effects from Trump, vis-a-vie Mexico’s economy.”

The poll also found that a surprising number of Mexicans — 40% — said they or a family member plan to migrate to the U.S. The vast majority, 86%, say the reason is jobs, defying ongoing assertions from experts who’d concluded that economic migration from Mexico has peaked. Reforma’s Becerra cautioned that the poll’s results in this area may be skewed because many people who were interviewed didn’t feel comfortable talking about safety issues with pollsters.

On the border, security is the overwhelming reason Mexicans say they are fleeing their country. Mexican migrants now outnumber Central American migrants in several border communities. On one recent day, many shivered in tents while waiting for opportunities to make asylum requests with U.S. officials at the border. They often cited safety concerns that range from killings to gunmen literally running them off their lands.

In September, Petra Colunga’s husband was killed in Río Grande in the state of Zacatecas after he missed an extortion payment allowing him to operate their small mechanic shop. Colunga fled with her 9- and 10-year old sons. In mid-November, they were staying in a raggedy makeshift tent set up near the Santa Fe International Bridge that connects El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Nearby, at the Chamizal Federal Public Park, an additional 300 families are camping out.

Colunga, who says she supports López Obrador, said, “I expected more, much more. Not this abrazos no balazos talk.” She was referring to López Obrador’s oft repeated lines that he believes in “hugs, not bullets” and that “You cannot fight fire with fire. You have to fight bad things with good deeds.”

“We’ll see how that works out for him,” said Colunga, 35. “It literally killed us.”

According to the poll, Mexicans feel that the strategy to lower violence is failing, but most don’t pin it on López Obrador, at least not yet. About 65% said that safety issues and the high crime rates remain Mexico’s top problem.

And 44% said they’d prefer to see López Obrador’s government adopt an aggressive strategy against organized crime even if that brings more violence, a rejection of the president’s passive stance. Another 35% said the government should compromise with criminal organizations to lower violence.

The frustration is compounded by a growing belief that drug cartels have overwhelmed law enforcement and that they have spread their influence into just about every facet of life in Mexico, leaving many people affected by extortions, kidnappings and violence.

Fermin Compean, 29, in Nazas in the state of Durango works in the dairy business. Recently, his hours have been cut even as the threat of violence grows because the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is muscling into an area once solidly controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. Compean has been thinking about doing what generations of Mexicans have done during economic downturns: going north for work.

“Ours is a generation that grew up thinking the future was right here in Mexico,” said Compean, a López Obrador supporter. “Now, all you hear is violence, insecurity, and there’s less money in our pockets. I’m thinking twice.”

Amid the rising crime, growng economic uncertainty, life goes on in Torreon, Coahuila where Mexicans turn out for community event that includes dancing. Lorena Maciel Rodriguez, far right, explains she's not ready to give up on new president.
Amid the rising crime, growng economic uncertainty, life goes on in Torreon, Coahuila where Mexicans turn out for community event that includes dancing. Lorena Maciel Rodriguez, far right, explains she’s not ready to give up on new president.(Alfredo Corchado / The Dallas Morning News)