to the infamous drug lord’s birthplace.
Mr López Obrador shook hands with María Consuelo Loera, the 92-year-old mother of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, having heard that she wanted to meet.
The president was visiting a road construction project in the mountainous northern state of Sinaloa, an area notorious for the marijuana and poppy plantations that place it at heart of the country’s drug trade.
In a video that appeared on social media, the Mexican president is heard saying “I greet you!”, as he offered his hand to the woman and warned her not to get out of her car.
“I got your letter.”, he added, before Mr López Obrador is seen leaving alongside a man identified as José Luis González Meza, a representative for the Guzmán family.
The presidential visit came within 24 hours of Mexico’s deputy health minister, Hugo López-Gatell, urging all 310 million citizens to stay at home.
“This is the last chance we have. We can’t lose it,”said Mr López-Gatell on Saturday. “We are saying to everyone: ‘Stay at home.’ It’s the only way to reduce this virus.”
The minister confirmed that there were 993 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 20 deaths.
Mexico’s president, known by many by his initials AMLO, appeared to have begun to take the crisis seriously after widespread criticism of his handling of the situation.
Mr López Obrador had been seen in recent weeks shaking hands and ignoring social distancing advice put in place by his own ministers.
On Saturday, however, he told Mexicans: “We have to be in our homes. We have to maintain a safe distance.” Hours later, video footage of his trip to Sinaloa went viral.
“It is very hard to understand what the president did today in Badiraguato,” tweeted the Mexican journalist Pascal Beltrán del Río.
He added that the president had “failed to keep a healthy distance – in more than one sense”.
An opposition leader from the National Action party (Pan), Marko Cortés, described the meeting as an insult to victims of Mexico’s cartels. He said on Twitter: “President, your greeting to Chapo Guzmán’s mother, outrageous to all, is a lack of respect for the victims of drug trafficking and the Armed Forces who risk their lives for our safety.”
On Monday, Mr López Obrador responded angrily to criticism, saying that he visited the Sierra Madre region “to connect with marginalized communities and villages”.
He added: “Sometimes I have to shake hands, because it is my job,” he said. “How could I not give my hand to a lady? How am I going to leave her with her hand waiting?”
He added that he would continue assisting El Chapo’s mother on humanitarian grounds as she seeks to visit her son in prison in Colorado, in the US.