New President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador went to one of his most important meetings yet Tuesday by cruising through city traffic in a compact car with the windows down and no visible security detail, establishing a casual new style of leadership that has some expressing concerns for his safety in violence-wracked Mexico.
In place of police outriders, a half dozen television cameramen on motorcycles buzzed around Lopez Obrador's car en route to a meeting with outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in the heart of Mexico City.
“The people will protect me,” Lopez Obrador told reporters who asked about the lack of security.
He suggested journalists would also cover his back, but jokingly complained that “I have been hit a few times by cameras” and he asked reporters: “Don’t squash me.”
Lopez Obrador met with Pena Nieto to discuss the transition for his taking office Dec. 1, hoping to ensure an orderly transfer of power after a heated and polarizing campaign.
Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, meanwhile, said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Mexico on July 13 to met with Lopez Obrador, the first high-level meeting with a leftist populist who has long denied accusations of being anti-American.
Lopez Obrador praised the Mexican team that has been leading talks under Pena Nieto to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“I have the impression they haven’t done a bad job,” he said, though he also wants his team to sit in on the talks.
The administration of President Donald Trump has demanded higher U.S. or regional content in key sectors like autos and a phase-out clause for the 1994 trade agreement.
Lopez Obrador also has been critical of NAFTA in the past and has suggested it include issues such as immigration.
Lopez Obrador said that he has already met with businessmen after his crushing victory in Sunday’s election and that he planned a Tuesday night meeting on inviting international figures — including Pope Francis, rights activists and the United Nations — to help come up with a plan to solve Mexico’s problem of soaring violent crime.
That violence was on many minds as television stations carried live images of Lopez Obrador weaving through Mexico City's notoriously chaotic traffic in the front passenger seat of a compact car that was at least five years old.
One television reporter on a motorcycle even interviewed Lopez Obrador briefly through the car’s open window.
Lopez Obrador, 64, confirmed that he won’t budge on his decision to forgo secret service protection. He said he will essentially dissolve Mexico’s equivalent of the secret service back into the army, of which it is unit. He also vowed to sell off government airplanes and travel on commercial flights, where he usually goes tourist class.
“He who fights for justice has nothing to fear,” the president-elect said. “I do not want to have bodyguards.”
Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Teaching, called it “an act of absolute irresponsibility.”
“It is a little demagogic to say, ‘I am just like anybody else, I have no privileges,’ when he isn’t just an average citizen, he is a head of state,” Crespo said. “A good part of the country’s stability and rule of law depend on his security and health.”
“It is one of the things I would say is populist about him,” Crespo said.
Polimnia Romana Sierra organized Lopez Obrador’s six-member, all-female security detail when he served as Mexico City mayor from 2000 to 2006. She said the group, known as “gazelles,” never acted as traditional bodyguards.
She said Lopez Obrador as mayor, and later during his first run as a presidential candidate in 2006, “never left anybody with an unshaken hand. He accepted everything'' — all the gifts, food and religious amulets he was given by supporters.
It was hardly an ideal security setup, but Romana Sierra noted the group never had to draw their guns.
It seemed Lopez Obrador wanted the team there to protect him against the crush of adoring crowds or attempts to politically embarrass him, for example, by paying someone to confront him verbally.
But even Romana Sierra said that as president, Lopez Obrador should accept traditional security. “He not only should, he is obliged to.”
“He is no longer Andres Manuel,” said Romana Sierra. “He represents a whole nation.”
A total of 145 politicians — most local figures — have been killed in Mexico since September.
Lopez Obrador was eager to call for national unity and praised Pena Nieto for not interfering in the campaign.
Photos showed the two men shaking hands and strolling the opulent halls of the colonial-era National Palace off the main square known as the Zocalo, the political and cultural heart of the country.
Lopez Obrador said he was entering the meeting with in a “conciliatory spirit” and he hopes for “a transition for the benefit of everyone.”
He won election Sunday in a landslide with about 53 percent of the votes against three competitors, after coming up short in two previous runs for the presidency.