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In government’s absence, Mexicans turn to cartels for pandemic aid

President Trump will welcome the president of Mexico to the White House on Wednesday. The country has more than 215,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the second-highest total in Latin America. More than 20,000 deaths have been recorded from the pandemic in Mexico -- but its government admits the number is a major undercount. Nick Schifrin reports on Mexico’s failures to contain the coronavirus.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow, President Trump will welcome the president of Mexico to the White House.

    There are more than 215,000 official cases of coronavirus in Mexico, the second highest total in Latin America. More than 20,000 have died.

    But Mexico's government acknowledges, that is a severe undercount.

    We sent camera crews across the country. And Nick Schifrin reports on the failures of the Mexican government to contain COVID.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Outside the northern city of Juarez, children who have nothing get their food from the man in the mask.

    He is not from the government. His mask is not only for COVID. He is a member of La Nueva Empresa drug cartel.

  • Man (through translator):

    The coronavirus is killing people like crazy, and we want to do something. People are a little desperate, having a hard time. There are no jobs. There is no money. People are worn out.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This so-called narco-philanthropy is designed to spread goodwill to protect smuggling routes. The cartels are the only source of help because the government is largely absent.

  • Rosa Maria Hernandez (through translator):

    For us, it is very good, because we need it right now. There is not much work. With all that's happening, it's a blessing.

  • Man (through translator):

    The shops are far away. And if you take a look, there is no police. So, this is a good place to work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Mexico has become a bad place to die; 1,000 miles south, in Mexico City, smoke rises from a crematorium that COVID's made all too busy.

    Judith hasn't grieved. She's too angry.

  • Judith (through translator):

    They gave me a paper that says she had lung problems, and, after two days, she died from COVID problems. But they never proved anything to me, nothing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Judith's hands, she holds her mother's remains. She blames the government for failing to protect people.

  • Judith (through translator):

    The government says that all you need is the picture of a saint, and, with that, you are going to be fine. But what's the picture of a saint going to do for me?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It actually wasn't a saint. It was a religious amulet.

  • President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    Stop, enemy, for the heart of Jesus is with me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's Mexico's president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, in mid-March, suggesting his good luck charms and advice could protect Mexico from COVID.

  • President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    The protective shield is honesty, not to allow corruption.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At first, AMLO, as he is widely known, flouted his own government's social distancing recommendations. He's declined to be tested until this trip to the U.S. because he's had no symptoms, and he refused to wear a mask.

  • President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    If I come here wearing a mask, how are the people going to feel? I have to keep the people's spirits up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Since then, Mexico has taken the threat more seriously. The government closed the country's borders and ordered schools and all nonessential businesses shut.

    But as soon as he could, AMLO restarted his own travel. On June the 1st, he reopened the country by launching a government-funded train that takes tourists to indigenous ruins.

  • President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (through translator):

    This comes at a good time. In these times, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we need to reactivate the economy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    AMLO focused on his signature infrastructure projects, but refused to increase direct government spending on Mexicans or their businesses.

    That's forced more than half the work force in the informal economy to ignore stay-at-home orders.

    Lorena Torres is an entrepreneur. Right now, she sells masks out of the back of a car.

  • Lorena Torres (through translator):

    There are countries where the government has an infrastructure to support the citizens through something like this, right, to send them home, and only worry about taking care of their family and their health. Many of us don't have that support.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the government wasn't strong enough to resist American pressure in an entire industry near the U.S. border, the factories where Mexican workers make parts for American companies.

    After the government tried to close them, hundreds of American business leaders wrote, they produced essential products and should stay open with social distancing and should stay open with social distancing and personal protective equipment.

    And U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau tweeted in Spanish, "You don't have workers if you close all the companies and they go elsewhere."

    Some factories never closed at all. And this man's mother caught COVID and died.

  • Man (through translator):

    The company never sent her home. The company never, ever cared about her health. My mother and the other workers should have gone home as soon as they issued the federal decree.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Outside a factory complex, an activist filmed workers so desperate to earn money, they said they were too scared to reveal dangerous conditions.

  • Woman (through translator):

    There have been cases in this plant already. And nobody says anything, out of fear.

    Seat belts for a golf cart. They are claiming that they make seat belts for ambulances and for medical use. That is a big lie.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    These videos were filmed by labor lawyer Susana Prieto Terrazas, who urged workers to walk out of factories not taking COVID-19 seriously.

  • Susana Prieto Terrazas (through translator):

    They are pretending they are complying with sanitary regulations when there are inspections.

    And when the inspector leaves, they make all the workers work shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with a massive risk of contagion.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A few days later, Terrazas posted this video, as she was arrested. She was charged with inciting riots. She sat for this interview before being arrested.

  • Susana Prieto Terrazas (through translator):

    I think U.S. companies behaved as unscrupulous as they have always have. It demonstrated the lack of authority of the president and his Cabinet and the indifference of American businessmen and politicians who have influence in this country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard insisted, the government ignored American pressure and stuck to its own reopening schedule.

  • Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard (through translator):

    We're in a global value chain, but Mexico's priority is the health and protection of the sick people. Mexico will follow its calendar.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Mexican government has also failed to resist U.S. pressure here in camps near the U.S. border.

    Central American migrants live in flimsy tents cramped close together because of the Trump administration's remain-in-Mexico statute. They apply for asylum in the U.S., but have to wait here, the policy accepted by the Mexican government.

    And just last week, an asylum seeker in this camp caught COVID.

    Twenty-three-year-old Yolanda fled from gang violence in Guatemala. She now fears disease.

  • Yolanda (through translator):

    I am afraid, especially when they distribute the food. The people from outside who come in never wear face masks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Elcias Joel is also from Guatemala.

  • Elcias Joel (through translator):

    We are exposed not only to coronavirus, but to many diseases. We are not living in ideal hygienic conditions. We live in fear because we are here, and we don't know when this nightmare will end.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mexico's coronavirus nightmare has been scary and deadly.

    Mexicans have lost their faith in the government's ability to contain COVID. And as high as the fatality numbers are officially, the actual number might be double.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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