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Mexico's AMLO marks year in office amid rampant violence

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Mexico City (AFP)

The economy is stagnant and violent crime has reached shocking levels even by Mexican standards, but President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador remains broadly popular as he marks one year in office.

The question is, for how long?

The anti-establishment leftist known as AMLO swept to office on December 1, 2018 after a landslide election victory, promising to "transform" Mexico.

He has come to dominate the entire political landscape, addressing "the people" for hours at a time, whether in his marathon daily press conferences or his tireless treks around the country.

Lopez Obrador, 66, says Mexicans are "happy, happy, happy" under his government.

But they would appear to have ever less reason for it.

The folksy populist's first year in office looks set to be the most violent since Mexico began keeping track in 1997, with 28,741 murders since January -- on track to break the record of 33,743 set last year.

The Mexican economy, Latin America's second-largest after Brazil's, has meanwhile stagnated. Analysts polled by the central bank are forecasting just 0.2 percent growth this year, far from the two percent that Lopez Obrador promised.

"There's less and less reason to say that he is doing a good job," said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

"A majority of Mexicans today still believe that he is a good man who's trying to do the right thing for Mexico. They continue to have faith that he can, in the long run, deliver. But that faith is being severely tested."

Some are even blunter.

"The AMLO government's so-called security policies are a total failure," said security analyst Erubiel Tirado of the Ibero-American University.

- Urban warfare, massacre -

Lopez Obrador's approval rating, once more than 80 percent, has fallen to the high 50s or 60s in recent polls.

It appears to have been hit particularly hard by a series of high-profile security fiascos.

They included the massacre of nine Mormon women and children with dual US-Mexican citizenship near the border by suspected drug cartel gunmen, and a botched attempt to arrest the son of jailed kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

That episode ended with the son's release, when his cartel waged all-out war on the streets of his bastion, Culiacan, Sinaloa.

Tirado is scathing in his criticism of Lopez Obrador's strategy of "hugs not bullets," which the president says means ending Mexico's brutal "drug wars" and instead fighting crime at its roots by attacking poverty and inequality.

"That's a false dichotomy," said Tirado. There is no reason the government cannot use both social programs and the security forces, he told AFP.

"It's not like criminals are going to stay home and be good just because you stop cracking down on crime," said Francisco Rivas, head of the National Citizens' Observatory, a think tank.

Lopez Obrador has also launched a new security force, the National Guard, in a bid to end the use of the military for fighting drug cartels.

But experts say the new force lacks training, structure and a clear mission.

And 27,000 of the 60,000 Guardsmen are being used not to fight crime but to stop undocumented migrants, under a controversial deal Lopez Obrador's government struck with the United States to avoid devastating tariffs threatened by President Donald Trump.

- Honeymoon ending -

Lopez Obrador can point to some successes.

He has launched popular welfare programs to help the elderly, the young and the poor, and racked up points with his pro-austerity, anti-corruption drive.

With Mexico's traditional political parties still reeling from their rout in the 2018 elections, Lopez Obrador and his upstart party, Morena, face next to no opposition.

But the economy threatens to be another Achilles' heel.

The president promised an average of four percent growth across his six-year term.

That looks increasingly like fantasy.

"The Mexican economy is practically stagnant," Spanish bank BBVA said this week in a report.

Mexicans, who tend to have a soft spot for underdogs, appear willing to give their sharp-tongued, silver-haired president more time, for now.

But without a change in direction, "he won't stay this popular much longer," said political analyst Hernan Gomez.

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