Leading presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was repeatedly targeted by his opponents in the first debate last night but largely refused to be drawn into the verbal battle.
The four other candidates took aim at the frontrunner on a range of issues in a debate that focused on security, violence, corruption and impunity.
However, a proposal López Obrador floated in December to explore the possibility of an amnesty for criminals as a means to achieve peace in the country was singled out for the most intense criticism.
Second-placed Ricardo Anaya was particularly persistent, pressing the third-time presidential contender to clarify his position on the issue, declaring that the strategy had failed in other Latin American countries such as Colombia and El Salvador.
“Proposing a pardon for criminals is madness, and would lead to an immense amount of violence in the country,” he said.
The leader of the right-left “For Mexico in Front” coalition sold himself as the only viable alternative to the candidate commonly known as AMLO, repeating his campaign slogan that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is already on the way out and asking voters “what kind of change do you want?”
Ruling party candidate José Antonio Meade, languishing in a distant third place in most opinion polls, was also highly critical of the amnesty idea, saying that it put López Obrador “on the side of the criminals.”
Instead, he pledged to put criminals in jail and said he would take personal responsibility for the security of Mexican families.
Meade also accused the leftist frontrunner of not declaring three apartments he allegedly owns.
In response to the criticism of his amnesty proposal, the Morena party leader said he had been misinterpreted and that it would not mean impunity for criminals.
López Obrador said his security strategy would “attend to the root causes of violence,” adding that after he wins the July 1 election he will assemble an expert team to assess the country’s security situation and come up with a plan to combat the rising levels of crime.
Even Pope Francis would be invited, he said, explaining that no option or alternative had been ruled out.
Last year was Mexico’s most violent in at least two decades, with more than 29,000 homicides.
López Obrador pointed to his time as mayor of Mexico City to highlight his security credentials, citing statistics and showing graphs to back up his assertion that violent crime including homicides went down while he was in office from 2000 to 2005.
Despite the intense criticism he faced, López Obrador rarely responded directly to the other candidates and at one point chose to simply hold up a graph showing the results of a recent poll by the newspaper Reforma which showed he had 48% support, 22 points ahead of Anaya.
“It’s not to show off. Something terrible would need to happen,” he said, without finishing his sentence but seemingly referring to the possibility of him losing the election.
He then declared that he would win the debate and his poll numbers would rise again. “That’s my reply,” he said.
He also said, “this isn’t just another election, this is to truly change things in this country.”
At another stage, López Obrador’s patience wore thin and he said, “obviously everyone’s against me, [everyone’s] ganging up on me.”
Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez quickly retorted “it’s not ganging up Andrés, it’s that you say any old nonsense.”
The independent candidate, on leave from his position as governor of Nuevo León, earlier opened the debate with a heartfelt account of the death of his son and directly asked the other candidates, one by one, if they had gone through the same experience.
“I have the experience of being a victim of this country and of bad governments,” he said, producing a bullet and holding it up as he spoke.
He also made the most controversial comment of the debate, proposing that thieves should have their hands chopped off, while he also asked López Obrador if his security strategy included convening narcos to ask for their input.
The other independent candidate, former first lady Margarita Zavala, said that a government she leads would protect Mexicans from corruption, crime, United States President Donald Trump and abuse from political parties.
Enrique Peña Nieto’s government “failed all of us,” she said.
Media company Grupo Reforma declared Anaya the winner based on evaluations completed by 903 people including community leaders, academics, political players, business people and members of civil society.
The former National Action Party (PAN) president and youngest candidate won according to 68% of participants, more than four times the 16% who said that López Obrador prevailed.
Several analysts noted that Anaya was best prepared for the debate, saying that he appeared to have done his homework.
Only 9% of participants said Meade won while 4% and 3% respectively said Rodríguez or Zavala was the victor.
Half of all participants declared López Obrador was the loser.
The second of three debates will be held in Tijuana next month and focus on border security, foreign policy and immigration.