President Donald Trump listens as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador claps during an event in the Rose Garden at the White House, Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Then-President Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, left, attend an event at the White House Rose Garden in July 2020. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Mexico’s leader has some advice for the United States.

Take better care of your kids. Try more hugs.

Cut down on the drugs and guns.

Keep your cops, troops and spies off our turf.

And leave Donald Trump alone.

Those are some of the latest musings from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who in recent weeks has been on a tear about the state of affairs north of the border. His riffs on the United States have veered from the bellicose to the bizarre, a barrage of muted threats, stern counsel and sociological pseudo-analysis decrying what he views as moral decay.

The bombast would seem fit for an enemy — not an ally that shares a 2,000-mile border and close economic, social and cultural ties.

But appearing to stand up to the colossus of the north has proved to have political benefits for López Obrador, who remains popular despite rising crime and economic woes.

“I’m glad that the president puts the gringos in their place,” said Arturo Robles, 51, a flower vendor in Mexico City. “It’s not fair when the gringos say it’s all our fault. They are the drug addicts.”

Opponents of the president say he is simply trying to create a distraction from his failures domestically.

“The president has gone into his usual mode of anti-Americanism, of finger-pointing and trying to deflect blame,” said Arturo Sarukhan, who served as ambassador to Washington during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, a bitter rival of López Obrador.

This week, López Obrador accused Washington of “abusive meddling” and “vulgar” behavior after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration boasted that it had infiltrated the Sinaloa cartel, the notorious drug-trafficking syndicate once headed by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The DEA apparently hadn’t bothered to notify Mexican authorities.

“Espionage,” the president declared.

As usual, there was no public retort from official Washington, which has clearly decided to not engage the Mexican president in his escalating verbal assaults. The Biden administration, like the Trump White House before, relies on Mexico to help prevent migrants from reaching the United States.

“López Obrador gets a free pass from Washington,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign secretary and harsh critic of López Obrador. “He’s gotten a very good deal from both Biden and Trump, basically for doing their dirty work on immigration.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks at a news conference in Mexico City on Feb. 28. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

As he nears his 70th birthday and the final year of his six-year term, López Obrador appears as passionate as ever about the political battleground and the righteousness of his ways. Behind a folksy, avuncular image there has long been a pugnacious persona ever poised to lash out at adversaries real and invented.

At the same time, he has stressed that his government will continue to work with Washington on crucial issues, including immigration and drug smuggling. The synthetic opioid fentanyl — blamed for tens of thousands of U.S. deaths annually — is now of greater concern than cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. Some Republican lawmakers have called for Washington to deploy the U.S. military to Mexico to pursue drug smugglers, or designate cartels as terrorist groups.

The suggestions, however unlikely to materialize, have enraged the Mexican president, fueling one nationalist salvo after another.

“Cooperation, yes. Submission, no,” has become one of his refrains.

López Obrador, who enjoyed a friendly relationship with Trump when he was in office, has assailed as political the criminal charges recently brought against the former president in New York. At the same time, he also has had only praise for President Biden, recently lauding him on Twitter as someone who “respects our sovereignty.”

“I think Biden realized very quickly that López Obrador is like a dog who barks a lot but really doesn’t bite,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a columnist for Reforma newspaper. “Biden has opted to be the adult in the room.”

A self-described man of the left, López Obrador often tilts right on social issues. His take on the U.S. drug crisis displays a conservative, moralistic inclination.

He has repeatedly cited a kind of ethical malaise north of the border, contrasting it to what he depicts as a healthy family dynamic in Mexico. Among his suggested remedies: U.S. parents should hug their kids more and encourage them to live at home longer.

“There is a lack of love, of brotherhood, of hugs and embraces,” López Obrador said last month.

He has reached for illustrations of how of the U.S. moral compass has gone awry. Reports that the National Basketball Assn. is contemplating dropping penalties for marijuana use provided a novel source of ammunition for the president’s assault on America’s vanished moral terrain.

“They threaten to invade, sell high-powered weapons in their markets, do nothing for their young, suffer — lamentably — from the terrible and deadly fentanyl pandemic, but don’t address the causes,” López Obrador opined this month in a tweet that received more than 4.5 million views. “They are not concerned about well-being, only the money, they do not strengthen moral, cultural or spiritual values; nor do they limit drug use, on the contrary, they encourage it even in sports. It is sad and decadent.”

The president has denied that fentanyl is manufactured in Mexico — despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Last month, a clearly flustered López Obrador took his complaints about the United States and fentanyl to an improbable interlocutor: Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a letter to his Chinese counterpart, the Mexican leader cited “scurrilous threats” from U.S. lawmakers. He asked Beijing for help in curbing the flow of precursor chemicals used in the opioid’s illicit production.

In a curt non-response, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing denied there was any illegal trafficking of fentanyl between China and Mexico. He told reporters that the drug problem was “made in the U.S.”

Mexican leaders have long chastised Washington for not doing more to curb domestic drug consumption — while also insisting that U.S. authorities crack down on the southbound traffic of weapons into Mexico.

“Every Mexican president from the beginning of time says to the United States, ‘What about demand for drugs?’ ” Castañeda said. “And every American president responds: ‘You’re right. Shared responsibility.’ Same story with the guns.”

López Obrador’s caustic rhetoric has taken the criticism to a new level. He has threatened to advise millions of U.S. citizens of Mexican descent living in the United States to vote against Republican candidates. He called the State Department “liars” in response to a report documenting rights abuses in Mexico and disputed U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s assertions that cartels control large swaths of Mexico.

Another point of contention between the two allies is López Obrador’s governing style, which critics say is increasingly autocratic.

He was incensed in February when U.S. State Department officials appeared to voice support for protesters who marched against a controversial electoral reform plan he has championed.

“They always meddle in matters that aren’t their business,” López Obrador said, adding: “There is more actual democracy in Mexico than in the United States.”

López Obrador came of political age as an activist in the 1970s, when the Latin American left was pro-Fidel Castro. He rose through the ranks of Mexico’s then-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was both authoritarian and deeply mistrustful of Washington. He broke away from the party in 1988.

Since assuming office after his third presidential bid, López Obrador has taken a pragmatic, and at times acquiescent, stance with Washington, acknowledging the crucial role of U.S. commerce and investment. His administration worked to sign a new free-trade deal, bending to the Trump White House on some key points. Separately, he succumbed to pressure from Trump — including the threat of tariffs — to help thwart U.S.-bound migrants passing through Mexico.

And despite placing some restrictions on U.S. anti-drug agents, Lopez Obrador has generally cooperated with the Justice Department on trafficking and other issues. Mexico has extradited a steady flow of cartel henchmen north.

A historian, López Obrador has pointedly taken to recalling Mexico’s past humiliations.

“It’s a matter of seeing history — we are among the most invaded nations in the world,” he recently told reporters, in a dubious assertion. “They have snatched our territory, have acted with dominance. How can we not defend our independence, our sovereignty?”

Such talk is “raw meat” for ultranationalists who make up perhaps a third of López Obrador’s political base, said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “It gets people riled up for next year’s election.”

Mexican presidents are barred from reelection. But it is widely believed that López Obrador will have the final say on whomever his ruling Morena party — which he founded — names to succeed him as the nominee in 2024.

As happens once every dozen years, both Mexico and the United States will be electing presidents. Some observers have posited that Republicans are likely to make fentanyl a key issue and use it to bash Mexico — much as Trump launched his 2016 campaign with rhetoric accusing Mexicans of being rapists and criminals.

Judging by his recent ruminations, López Obrador will be ready and willing to respond.

“Things could get a lot hotter,” said Bravo Regidor, the columnist. “There’s definitely going to be a lot of noise.”

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Originally published