World / Politics

Mexico leader's austere, unguarded air travel routine proves security headache

AFP-JIJI

Accompanied only by five unarmed aides and a small collection of amulets, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador makes police and flight attendants alike tremble when he embarks on air travel, always in economy class.

Lopez Obrador, known by his initials AMLO, stops for photos with everyone, allowing them to kiss, hug or even grab him by the waist.

“Of course, whatever photos you like,” said the smiling president to a woman trying to snatch a photo with her smart phone as he walked to the plane ahead of a trip to Sinaloa, the dangerous drug-trafficking state made famous by narcotics kingpin Joaquim “El Chapo” Guzman.

AMLO’s acquiescence sparked a near stampede as others swirled around the president looking for their own memento.

All the while, there was no security to push back the throngs.

Mexico’s leftist leader has done away with the thousands of military escorts looking after the president and sent them to work “for the benefit of the people.”

The presidential jet, a Boeing Dreamliner 787-8 bought for $218 million, is now on sale in California. AMLO traveled to Sinaloa on a cramped Embraer Jet.

“How can I board this plane when there’s so much poverty in Mexico,” AMLO had said about the Boeing Dreamliner.

Now he travels with a small retinue of aides headed by Daniel Asaf, a restauranter of Lebanese origin and former candidate for Mexico City’s legislature.

In fact, none of AMLO’s aides are security specialists, instead they are defined by their “loyalty.”

Three women and two men spent most of the trip to Sinaloa shoving back reporters and asking travelers to move away after taking a selfie.

The security services may be in a fluster but AMLO is the most popular president in the country’s history with an 80 percent approval rating, according to the last Mitofsky poll.

Part of that popularity came from his campaign promises to reduce his own salary and those of the government’s top officials.

However, Mexico City’s airport police are less impressed with AMLO’s humble availability.

“When he has to cross the entire airport, it’s the worst,” said an airport police officer who wished to remain anonymous.

“People pounce on him. If one day someone wants to do something to him we won’t be able to stop them because he doesn’t like being guarded.

“He can’t continue like this, he has to use the VIP room.”

On this journey, AMLO was heading to one of a part of Mexico infested with drug traffickers and violent gangs. But he has no fear of being attacked, believing himself protected by an assortment of talismans.

“I have a lot of protection, this is a shield,” he told AFP, holding up an image of the “Sacred Heart” of Jesus.

Among his other protective amulets, AMLO carries a four leaf clover and a dollar given to him by a Mexican migrant.

For some passengers, having the president on their flight gives them a feeling of security.

Carmen Diaz, a 52-year-old housewife traveling to Sinaloa for a party, said she would have “never expected” to find herself on a flight with the president.

Although she worried it would be unsafe due to the number of people aboard, “it’s the opposite because they’re watching the flight closer.”

But for air stewardess Alejandra Martinez, the flight is a headache.

“It’s awful that he’s come on my flight. People are ignoring the (safety) instructions, they’re leaving their seats even during turbulence and the press don’t understand that their cameras could become projectiles if something unexpected happens,” she said.

“I hope he never travels with my family.”

Upon landing at the Culiacan airport in Sinaloa, AMLO was met by throngs of supporters and angry widows of police officers killed in the fight against drug traffickers.

After all the commotion of his humble journey, AMLO had no time for the waiting masses, and was whisked away by the local governor’s security detail.

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