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Mexico’s president claimed he had photo proof of a mythical elf. Why?

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador holds a news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City in January. (Isaac Esquivel/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s claim that he has photo evidence of a mythical elflike creature set the internet alight. It also left many wondering: Why was he tweeting this?

“Everything is mystical,” López Obrador wrote on Twitter over the weekend with a picture of a veiled creature with glowing eyes perched in a tree. He said it was an “aluxe” — a mischievous being in Maya lore.

While the president, known as AMLO, has a reputation for being a bit eccentric — with rambling, hours-long daily news conferences and a belief that religious amulets could ward off covid — his elf tweet achieved a new level of whimsy.

“Even by AMLO standards, I think it was received as one of his most bizarre sort of interventions,” said Pablo Calderón Martínez, a professor of politics and international relations at Northeastern University London.

López Obrador said Saturday the photo was taken “three days ago” by an engineer working on his expansive and expensive Mayan Train project.

But the photo appears to be more than two years old. A seemingly identical image was posted on Twitter on Feb. 9, 2021, by a man who said the creature, which he described as a witch, was spotted in the northern state of Nuevo León. A reverse image search showed that the photo had been circulating for at least a few days before that; an Indonesian news site published an article two years ago saying the picture was taken on Feb. 4, 2021.

It left many wondering why the president of Mexico felt the need to share it on Twitter. Did he believe it was real? Did he know the photo was probably more than two years old? Was it a genuine nod to Maya culture, or were there other motivations?

The answer, so far, is as elusive as an aluxe.

“The whole episode is weird,” Calderón Martínez said. “Who knows what the real intentions are?”

Among the possibilities, Calderón Martínez said, was that López Obrador wanted to distract from a recent controversy that is likely more serious than an elf sighting: Tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets Sunday to protest a law that threatens to weaken the country’s national electoral institute, a pillar of Mexico’s young democracy. A spokesman for López Obrador did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“If you throw a dead cat on the table, everyone’s going to be talking about the dead cat on the table, right?” Calderón Martínez said. “So that’s what he does. He starts talking about the aluxe, the mystical elf in the forest.”

The tweet also brought attention to López Obrador’s signature Tren Maya project, an ambitious and controversial attempt to revitalize southern Mexico, a region long forgotten by other leaders. López Obrador is from southern Mexico.

López Obrador said the photo was taken in the construction zone of the Tren Maya, a $15 billion project to create a tourist train line to connect the resorts of Cancún, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen — destinations popular with foreign tourists — to the Maya sites and communities in the country’s most impoverished region.

The project has divided Mexico; construction has involved gutting a football field-wide gash through the Maya Forest and dismantling and removing tens of thousands of artifacts. The second picture in AMLO’s tweet showed what he described as a pre-Hispanic sculpture in the area.

Destroying Maya treasures to build a tourist train

An aluxe, according to Yucatán Magazine, is “similar to a Celtic leprechaun.” They’re thought to be invisible beings that appear when they want to help — or scare — humans. “Anyone who’s ever adventured through the jungles of Yucatán,” the magazine reported, “has had aluxes (a-LOO-shez) as traveling companions.”

Thought to be represented in small clay figurines found throughout the region, they’re so entrenched in the region’s history that researchers from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History held a ceremony asking for their permission to conduct archaeological work in the 1990s, according to the Yucatán Times.

Whatever López Obrador’s intentions, Calderón Martínez said, it wasn’t a mistake. The populist is “very careful in what he says, and what he tweets. … It’s all part of his message and his appeal.”

Benjamin Smith, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick in Britain, said the tweet could further fuel ongoing rumors that López Obrador, 69, has dementia or is otherwise unfit to govern.

“At the same time, he’s also quite a savvy political player,” he said. “I suppose you could see it as a clever way to show that the Mayan Train is in some way approved of … by the Mayan gods or something.”