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LATIN AMERICA | 01-12-2019 20:47

Mexico's López Obrador marks first year in office with party – and protests

Polls say more than half of Mexicans support the way López Obrador is running the country, despite rising homicide rates and a floundering economy that is flirting with recession.

Thousands of Mexicans packed into the capital's central square Sunday to celebrate President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's first year in office, while thousands more marched down the city's main avenue to protest violence and other ills in the country.

The mood in the Zocalo was festive, with an orchestra from the president's home state of Tabasco playing tropical music inspired by Cuban sounds while scantily clad women danced next to them. Revelers donned masks bearing López Obrador's likeness in what supporters have dubbed AMLOFest, a play on the president's initials.

Polls say more than half of Mexicans support the way López Obrador is running the country, despite rising homicide rates and a floundering economy that is flirting with recession.

López Obrador has big ambitions to change Mexico. He says, often, that for the good of all the poor must take priority and vows to staunch widespread corruption. He calls his presidency the "Fourth Transformation," equating it with national milestones like Mexico's independence from Spanish rule.

In a speech Sunday, the president tallied his achievements so far, such as the rollout of new social programs aimed mostly at helping the young, elderly and indigenous. The World Bank estimates that one of three Mexicans lives in poverty.

"There still hasn't been economic growth like we want," he conceded, "but I insist there's a better distribution of wealth."

CONTINUED VIOLENCE

On the Paseo de la Reforma boulevard, meanwhile, protesters dressed in white expressed anger and frustration over increasingly appalling incidents of violence, a stagnant economy and deepening political divisions in the country.

The November slaughter by Mexican drug cartel gunmen of three women who held US citizenship and six of their children focused world attention on the rising violence.

Adrián and Julián LeBarón, who lost family members in the attack in northern Mexico, joined the protesters in the capital.

The protesters shouted cheers of support as the LeBaróns passed the Angel of Independence monument, chanting: "LeBarón, LeBarón," followed by, "You're not alone."

Julián LeBarón told reporters that Mexico's president needs the help of the people to overcome organised crime.

"We have to work together to find a way to stop the violence," he said. "If we're not capable of defending life in our country, we will never be a civilised country much less a free country."

President Donald Trump said last week that he plans to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organisations, raising concerns in Mexico that the country's northern neighbour will launch operations in Mexican territory.

López Obrador thanked Trump on Sunday for respecting Mexico's sovereignty after shootings such as the attack that killed members of the LeBarón family, and promised to deliver justice while emphasising that Mexico will not accept "any intervention" by US authorities.

The Mexican government said Sunday that it has made several arrests related to the attack on the LeBarón family.

'LITANY OF COMPLAINTS'

Protesters have a litany of complaints. The president's austerity drive led to thousands of layoffs in the public sector while budget cuts have been blamed for crises ranging from rampant forest fires to shortages of lifesaving drugs at public health institutions and even outbreaks of Dengue fever as municipalities cut back on spraying insecticide to kill mosquitoes.

"We're questioning the poor decisions of the government that have destabilised the country in terms of the economy, health, education and security," said Desirée Navarro, a fashion stylist and member of an organisation called Daughters of Mexico that aims to speak out against violence and inequality.

Navarro described the president's pet projects, such as a train through the Yucatán peninsula, as "whims" that are sucking precious financial resources from more worthy endeavours.

Fernanda Betancourt, a lawyer from the Gulf coast state of Veracruz who is also affiliated with the organisation, said business appears to be at a standstill in her hometown due to insecurity and a lack of investment.

"The president talks about savings, but at the same time he's not investing," she said. "If there's no investment, there's no growth."

Betancourt said she wants to see the president unite Mexicans, rather than divide them.

POLARISATION

Mexico has become increasingly polarised under López Obrador. The president has derisively labeled his critics "posh," while his supporters have been categorised by conservatives as "chairos," meaning people who defend left-leaning social causes but demonstrate little real commitment to change.

Supporters of the president say give him more time.

"There have been advances, but maybe it's slow," said Karla González, a lawyer who voted for López Obrador. The country's deep security problems, for instance, can't be solved overnight, she said.

González said her father is thrilled to be receiving a pension for the elderly of roughly US$125 each month that López Obrador launched. Her father worked hard in factories and restaurants before taking on a bigger role raising the kids after heart problems. Such programs have won deep loyalty from low-income voters.

López Obrador said Sunday he expects it to take one more year for his "transformation" of the country to be complete.

– AP

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