Friday, June 21, 2024

Popocatépetl, polls and Pegasus: the week at the mañaneras

As part of his duties this week, President López Obrador received letters of credence from the ambassadors of seven countries: The Philippines, South Korea, the (partially recognized) Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Portugal, China, Colombia and Russia.

AMLO’s conversations with the diplomats of South Korea and China could have conceivably touched on fentanyl, as the president revealed at his final press conference of the week that the government would enter into agreements with those two Asian countries to cooperate on the fight against the trafficking of the synthetic opioid and associated precursor chemicals to Mexico.

China's ambassador to Mexico with AMLO
China’s ambassador to Mexico, Zhang Run, with President López Obrador on Thursday. (AMLO/Twitter)

Among the other issues discussed at López Obrador’s morning press conferences, or mañaneras, this week were the government’s takeover of a section of railroad in Veracruz, alleged spying on a senior federal official, per-capita homicide rates and a meningitis outbreak linked to two clinics in the border city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas.

Monday

“The Maya Train is a priority project of the Mexican government that will generate development with justice and allow the archaeological wealth, natural beauty and human grandeur of Mexico’s southeast to be appreciated,” said Javier May, director of the National Tourism Promotion Fund (Fonatur), which is overseeing construction of the ambitious – and controversial – railroad project.

May offered a summary of the multibillion-dollar tourism, commuter and freight train project, which is scheduled to begin operations in December.

Forty-two “modern, comfortable and safe” passenger trains will travel along the 1,554-kilometer-long railroad, which will have 20 stations and 14 more modest paraderos (stops), he said.

Contradicting the claims of some activists, the Fonatur chief asserted that the project is environmentally responsible because it is complemented by the planting of 500 million saplings in Mexico’s southeast.

In addition, existing protected areas will be expanded to together form “the largest natural reserve in Mexico,” said May, who was one of several speakers during the first hour of AMLO’s Monday presser.

Among the others were the government’s Financial Intelligence Unit chief Pablo Gómez, who expounded on corruption within the now-defunct Federal Police, and Chiapas Governor Rutilio Escandón Cadenas, who declared that residents of the southern state are “very excited” and “very happy” about the upcoming inauguration of the Maya Train.

Pablo Gómez
Head of the Financial Intelligence Unit, Pablo Gómez, at the morning press conference. (Gob MX)

As loquacious as ever, López Obrador dedicated some 100 minutes to responding to reporters’ questions.

Asked about an increase in the alert level for the Popocatépetl volcano, AMLO said that authorities were watching “El Popo” closely.

“There are those who maintain that it’s more reassuring when there are eruptions than when [the volcano] is silent. In any case, there is surveillance of the behavior of the volcano 24 hours [a day],” he said.

López Obrador said that authorities were ready to evacuate people if necessary, but stressed that the “traffic light” volcanic alert system still showed yellow rather than the more alarming red.

The president later denied that his government expropriated a section of railroad operated by Grupo México subsidiary Ferrosur in Veracruz, asserting that it simply “recovered a concession” that belongs to the nation when the navy took over a stretch of railroad between Medias Aguas and Coatzacoalcos on May 19.

A decree he issued that paved the way for the government’s “temporary occupation” of three sections of railroad said that “market-value” compensation would be paid to Ferrosur, but López Obrador complained that Grupo México had proposed 9.5 billion pesos.

“It’s not a fair price but rather an abuse,” he said, adding that an appraisal will be carried out to determine an appropriate compensation amount.

AMLO highlighted that trains are still running along the section occupied by the navy, and stressed that the takeover was not related to Grupo México’s planned purchase of Citibanamex, which ultimately didn’t go ahead.

AMLO at Tuesday press conference
The president shows the planned Isthmus of Tehuantepec railway project. (Gob MX)

Among other remarks, López Obrador announced that the government would offer one-year temporary visas to Central Americans that will allow them to work on public infrastructure projects.

“We need labor for the projects. … We need a lot of blacksmiths, welders, even engineers,” he said.

AMLO said that jobs are available on all government infrastructure projects, including the Maya Train railroad, the Olmeca Refinery on the Tabasco coast and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec trade corridor, which includes the modernization of a railroad between Salina Cruz and Coatzacoalcos and the construction of 10 industrial parks.

Tuesday

Introducing the government’s recurring “Pulso de la Salud” (Health Pulse) segment, AMLO noted that 700 specialist doctors from Cuba are now working in Mexican hospitals.

“And we’re still recruiting. … There are jobs, there is work … for general doctors and specialists because what we want is to leave the public health system working [optimally] before our government ends [in 2024],” he said.

Speaking again about the dangers of drug addiction, Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell stressed that people can get hooked on narcotics regardless of their social and financial situation.

“Last week we spoke about cocaine and crack and we displayed several real images … [that showed] the situations that people who consume drugs end up in. … All the images were of dispossessed people, poor people, highly-marginalized people and that can give the impression that the consumption of drugs is exclusive to people in situations of great poverty,” he said.

“So we want to emphasize [that] across the entire social and economic spectrum there can be problems of addiction,” said López-Gatell, the government’s newly-designated addiction prevention czar.

Later in the presser, a reporter noted that the Supreme Court on Monday invalidated the entirety of a 2021 decree that protected government infrastructure projects from legal challenges and scrutiny and asked the president whether a new similar decree he published last week would nullify the court’s decision.

“Yes, we brought [the new decree] forward because we knew that the court had the intention of stopping the projects we’re carrying out in the southeast – the Maya Train, the [trans-] isthmus [corridor] and other important projects,” López Obrador said.

“As is colloquially said, we lost the Supreme Court. I believe that it has always been far from the people and close to power, but now in a shameless way … [the justices] are at the service of the magnates, the minority, … the oligarchy,” he said.

The president was also probed about a report by The New York Times that claimed that Deputy Interior Minister Alejandro Encinas has been a victim of espionage.

A grey-bearded, light-skinned man with glasses speaks at a podium.
Deputy Interior Minister, Alejandro Encinas, was reportedly a victim of espionage using Pegasus spyware. (Presidencia)

AMLO said that that Encinas had spoken to him about the espionage allegation, and that he told him to not “attach importance” to it because “there was no intention [of the government] to spy on anyone.”

He said he didn’t know whether the deputy minister had actually been spied on before repeating his assertion that his government doesn’t spy on anyone, a claim at odds with an investigation published late last year that found that the Defense Ministry used Pegasus spyware against journalists and human rights defenders in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Turning to another issue, López Obrador said that the government could enter into a public-private partnership to purchase Citibanamex if the sale to Grupo México didn’t go ahead.

Speaking a day before Citigroup announced it would pursue an initial public offering to offload Banamex, AMLO said that the government could buy a majority stake in the bank and wouldn’t stand to lose anything because banking is a “perfect business.”

“… Why can we do this? Because we have strong public finances. Why do we have strong public finances? Because there is no corruption, because theft isn’t allowed, because there is no superfluous spending,” he said.

Before bringing his presser to a close, López Obrador spoke briefly about the Popocatépetl volcano situation. He noted that the intensity of the volcano’s activity had declined and observed that it was emitting less ash.

“Reviews of evacuation routes were already carried out, there is no problem. We’re working on all the preventative measures, but there should be no alarm,” AMLO said.

Wednesday

“It’s the season of many, many lies,” López Obrador declared at the beginning of his presser.

“It’s raining lies. Yesterday I read a tweet about an Uber [driver] listening to a news bulletin on the radio and it was completely against us,” he said.

AMLO claimed that all radio stations in Mexico City are opposed to his government, and asserted that the hostility has only increased in recent days.

“The only logical explanation,” he said, is that they want to influence the election in México state, where citizens will elect a new governor on June 4.

Ana García Vilchis at the Wednesday press conference. (Gob MX)

Ana García Vilchis continued the government’ denunciation of the media in her “Who’s Who in the Lies of the Week” segment. Among her targets was José Antonio Crespo, a political scientist and columnist for the El Universal newspaper.

“As … the government that President López Obrador leads is doing so well, now they’re attacking the people,” García said before highlighting a tweet in which Crespo asserted that if an El Universal poll that found 65% support for the government “faithfully reflects what the people think, the country is lost.”

“They’re the ones who are lost,” she said, presumably referring to anyone opposed to AMLO and his government.

“… Es un honor estar con Obrador,” García added, using a popular slogan among AMLOvers that translates as “It’s an honor to be with Obrador.”

López Obrador acknowledged that there are millions of Mexicans who think like Crespo, but asserted that the El Universal poll – which found just 6% opposition to the government and 26% neutrality – showed that there is “no polarization” in Mexico.

“Polarization would be … 55-45 or 45-55 or 50-50,” he said.

“But if the poll faithfully reflects what the people think, as this conservative intellectual says, there is no polarization. What there is here is a minority [of people opposed to the government], an elite. Imagine a pyramid or a hill. At the top, there might be dissent, but below … the people are happy, they support the transformation,” AMLO said.

While responding to a question about security problems in San Luis Potosí later in his press conference, López Obrador called for per-capita homicide data to be displayed.

The data showed that Colima has the highest homicide rate among the 32 federal entities during the term of the current government, with 360 murders per 100,000 residents between December 2018 and March 2023. Baja California, Chihuahua, Zacatecas and Morelos ranked second to fifth, while San Luis Potosí ranked 14th.

“San Luis Potosí is below the average, 84 [homicides per 100,000 residents]. … I say to the people of San Luis that security is a basic priority for us, … that’s why we have a security meeting every day,” López Obrador said.

The president noted later in the mañanera that he had been informed that negotiations between Grupo México and Citigroup over the latter’s sale of Banamex had been suspended, and reiterated that the government could buy a majority stake in the bank.

“I’m going to speak with the finance minister … because we could do it,” AMLO said.

Thursday

The head of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) noted in an address to reporters that an ancient Olmec sculpture known as Portal al inframundo (Portal to the Underworld) had been returned to Mexico from the United States more than 50 years after its removal from an archaeological site in Morelos.

“It truly is a very impressive piece. The historical importance of this archaeological piece of over 2,500 years of age compares with the iconic colossal heads of the Olmec culture,” Diego Prieto Hernández said.

Olmeca artifact
The “portal to the underworld” Olmec artifact in its new display in Cuernavaca, Morelos. (INAH)

“… Thanks to the efforts of the Mexican government, this piece, this national treasure, has returned to our country, and after a period of exhibition at the Regional Museum of the People of Morelos … it will return to the Chalcatzingo archaeological site in Morelos, from where it never should have left.”

During his Q & A session with the press corps, López Obrador said that cases of meningitis among people who underwent surgical procedures at two clinics in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, were caused by contaminated medication.

“A substance, a medication used as an anesthetic for plastic surgery, was contaminated. It was discovered that it was in a bad state,” he said.

AMLO at press conference with INAH head
AMLO at the Thursday morning press conference with the head of INAH, Diego Prieto Hernández. (INAH/Cuartoscuro.com)

“… Unfortunately there are deaths due to this situation,” AMLO said. “… I’m going to ask the doctor Hugo López-Gatell to issue a report about what’s happening.”

Later in his press conference, the president made it clear that he is no fan of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who announced on Wednesday that he would seek the Republican Party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election in the United States. He took aim at the governor for his anti-immigration policies, and called on Hispanics to “wake up” and not give him a single vote.

“They shouldn’t vote for those who go after migrants, those who don’t respect migrants, because a migrant, as the Bible says, deserves respect,” López Obrador said.

Responding to another question, AMLO insinuated that he has little respect for Ricardo Mejía, a former deputy security minister who is contesting the upcoming gubernatorial election in Coahuila on a Labor Party (PT) ticket after failing to secure the nomination for Mexico’s ruling party Morena, which is allied with PT at the federal level.

“I don’t have a relationship with Ricardo Mejía. He was here with us and he left without saying goodbye,” López Obrador said in response to a reporter who sought his opinion on the use of his image and name to promote the PT candidate.

“… I don’t want my name to be used because I don’t have a relationship with him, it’s as clear as that. It seems to me to be an act of dishonesty to use my name for a campaign when I don’t have a relationship [with the candidate],” he said.

AMLO subsequently said that he would throw his support behind whoever Morena members choose to be the party’s candidate at Mexico’s 2024 presidential election.

“They’re my brothers and sister,” he said, referring to the aspirants to Morena’s candidacy, namely Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Interior Minister Adán Augusto López, Senator Ricardo Monreal and Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum.

“But whoever wins the survey, that’s who I’m going to support,” AMLO said.

Friday

In an introduction to his last mañanera of the week, López Obrador noted that inflation is declining (6% in the first half of May), the economy is growing (3.7% annually in the first quarter) and the peso remains strong (about 17.6 to the US dollar on Friday afternoon).

Another positive, he said, is that Carlos Slim’s Grupo Carso consortium agreed to buy just under half of the Mexican subsidiary of United States company Talos Energy, which has a 17.4% stake in a large Gulf of Mexico oil field.

“We’re pleased that this agreement was reached yesterday, that it’s a Mexican company,” AMLO said before noting that Grupo Carso will partner with Talos, two European firms and state oil company Pemex to develop the Zama oil field.

During his engagement with reporters, López Obrador revealed that the government was on the verge of entering into an agreement with China to combat fentanyl trafficking.

“[United States lawmakers] asked me to intervene so that fentanyl wouldn’t be transported to Mexico from China. I sent a letter to the president of China. … The first thing they said is that … fentanyl wasn’t exported from China. Shortly afterwards a shipment of fentanyl from China was found at the port of Lázaro Cárdenas and now the government of China is acting,” he said.

“We’re about to establish an agreement between the government of China and the government of Mexico … to avoid the entry to Mexico of fentanyl from China. We’re going to do the same thing with South Korea. There is willingness on their part to help. In that way we can guarantee that fentanyl and precursors that arrive from Asia are combated,” López Obrador said.

He later reaffirmed that he would file a lawsuit against a United States-based lawyer for allegedly slandering him at the New York trial of former federal security minister Genaro García Luna, who in February was found guilty of collaborating with the Sinaloa Cartel in its drug trafficking activities.

“I’m waiting for the right time but I’m going to do it because for political purposes and in a biased way he tried to involve me in the case of García Luna,” López Obrador said, referring to defense lawyer César de Castro’s insinuation that his 2006 presidential campaign was partially funded by drug money.

“We’re going to ask for compensation because it’s not about Andrés Manuel, … it’s about the president of Mexico, and not just anyone, least of all a foreigner, can call into question the integrity and honesty of the president of Mexico,” he said.

Any compensation received would go to orphans, “children of parents who lost their lives when there was this criminal association between government and crime,” said AMLO.

Toward the end of his presser, the president doubled down on his decision to not hand over the leadership of the four-nation Pacific Alliance trade bloc to Peru, where he asserts former president Pedro Castillo was unfairly ousted last year.

Dina Boluarte, president of Peru
AMLO does not recognize Peruvian president Dina Boluarte’s government and granted asylum to ousted president Pedro Castillo’s family in Mexico. (@PresidenciaPeru Twitter)

“I’m not going to hand it over to the lady that is usurping the presidency,” AMLO said in reference to Peruvian President Dina Boluarte.

“While there is no normality, no democracy in Peru we don’t want economic or trade relations with them,” he said before ruling out a breakup of the Pacific Alliance, which also includes Colombia and Chile.

The bloc, which was established 11 years ago, is just “on pause,” AMLO said.

Before bringing another week of mañaneras to an an end, López Obrador said that suspects in the murder of a journalist in Tehuacán, Puebla, on Tuesday had been identified, but offered few other details.

“It seems it’s not related to his recent journalistic activity, he said, adding that further information will be provided soon.

By Mexico News Daily chief staff writer Peter Davies ([email protected])

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