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The table is being laid here for a political battle of biblical proportions as the Mexican Congress, under the hammer of the rightist National Action or PAN (the party of President Vicente Fox) and the once-upon-a-time long-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), prepare to strip left-wing Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) of both his office and the immunity from prosecution ("el fuero") it affords him, for the heinous crime of seeking to build an access road to a hospital despite a court order barring him from expropriating a private right-of-way.
If convicted of contempt of court charges in this momentously forgettable imbroglio, Lopez Obrador could be sentenced to prison for up to eight years and would be automatically stripped of his political rights and excluded from next year’s presidential election–AMLO has been a ten-point front-runner in the race for the job ever since 2003 mid-term elections.
Long-time political observers here, not just this grizzled veteran of 20 years of partisan felonies, see this PRI-PAN ploy to get rid of Lopez Obrador as one of the dirtiest tricks ever perpetrated in the deviant annals of recent Mexican electoral history, one that indeed spells the end of the line for Mexico’s glacial "transition to democracy."
Even the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in a recent evaluation of security risks in the hemisphere, warns that such a provocative turn of events could so polarize Mexico in anticipation of the 2006 presidential elections as to make this distant neighbor nation "ungovernable."
Out at the scene of the crime that could unchain a volcano of public protest if the PAN-PRI scheme prospers, the shaggy winter grass wags tranquilly in the breeze – but just over the bucolic hillside one can detect the grinding of gears as heavy machinery digs at the earth, preparing the foundations of transnational corporate headquarters that have made the Santa Fe district of extreme western Mexico City a high rent landscape.
Depending upon whose calculations one buys; "El Encino" ("The Oak") is a 100,000 or 83,000 square meter swatch of much-coveted terrain. Once national land deeded to rancher cronies by dictator Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910), El Encino eventually fell into the hands of real estate speculators operating under the shady corporate handle "Promotora Internacionales Santa Fe" ("International Promoter of Santa Fe.")
Back in 2001, when Mayor Lopez Obrador seeking to accommodate the new site of the upscale British-run ABC hospital broke ground on an access road that skirted the Encino property, Promotora Internacionales obtained a court injunction barring construction until the land ownership issues were unraveled. The speculators also alleged that the city was blocking access to the property–a pair of two-foot wide footpaths – by parking its heavy machinery there, and demanded that the Mayor and/or his representatives be held in contempt of court for doing so.
One day in early February 2005, members of the congressional commission assembling the evidence and preparing the charges against AMLO took a field trip out to El Encino to examine the property for itself and the embattled mayor tagged along to kibitz. While commissioners accompanied by federal judicial agents, surveyed the property lines, Lopez Obrador joked with reporters that the proof of his innocence was staring them right in the face–there was, in fact, no access road to the hospital nor had there ever been one. He had discontinued construction upon learning of the court order. Whether or not compliance was immediate has been difficult to determine–aerial photographs are nebulous and there are no witnesses other than the grass to inculpate the mayor.
Upon such legaloid hair-splitting, the fate of the Aztec nation may rest.
Despite their day in the country, the majority of the congressional commissioners–two PANistas, two PRIistas and a token member of Lopez Obrador’s left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution did not seem to much care about the details of the matter–one PAN deputy snoozed in his car during the outing. On February 23rd, having shut down the investigation into the land ownership issue, the PAN-PRI- dominated commission gathered up its findings, all of which seemed to support criminal charges formally filed against AMLO by the nation’s attorney general Rafael Macedo de la Concha, and put the full chamber on notice that it would soon send the legislature their recommendations to strip Lopez Obrador of his "fuero."
The PRI-PAN majority in congress is expected to approve the request for "desafuero" (the taking away of the "fuero") and bind Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador over for criminal prosecution.
Although the PRD, which controls the Mexico City legislative assembly would continue to govern Mexico City as it has since 1997 (PRD militants are sworn to take the doors of City Hall to prevent the opposition from laying claim to the building), the mayor will be forced to step down to face the music for the sin of trying to build a road to a hospital.
Stripping AMLO of his immunity from prosecution will require half of the 500 seat lower house plus one. With 150 PANistas unanimously prepared to oust Lopez Obrador, only 91 members of the PRI’s 240 strong congressional delegation need to join their right-wing rivals to send Lopez Obrador to trial.
PRI president Roberto Madrazo, an AMLO enemy since the two slugged it out year after year in the swamps of their home state Tabasco in the late 1980S and early ’90s, has told his majority bloc in congress they are free to vote their conscience on the desafuero – but it is a well-known fact that PRIistas have no conscience and inevitably, reflexively, vote the Party line.
Despite the high-minded claim that he would rather beat AMLO in the polling place than through legalistic flimflam, Roberto Madrazo is not about to pass up this golden opportunity to deconstruct his blood rival’s political ambitions.
And besides, Roberto Madrazo has made it abundantly clear in recent weeks that, if he has anything to say about it, he will be the PRI’s presidential nominee in 2006 and getting the front-runner out of the way early will be a big boost in his campaign to retake Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, from the PAN.
Interior Secretary Santiago Creel too, Fox’s hand-picked successor, has good reason to want Lopez Obrador out of the way in 2006. Back in 2000, Creel lost the Mexico City mayor’s race to AMLO by just three points. Although Creel overspent campaign limits by a half million dollars and accepted large campaign donations from dubious sources, Fox’s attorney general was never prosecuted.
In what must be a high water mark for political hypocrisy, Santiago Creel now insists that bringing charges against "El Pejelagarto" (a gar-like Tabasco swamp fish and AMLO’s totem animal) is not politically motivated and that the dispute over El Encino is really just between "particulars." El Peje’s plight is lamentable but "no politician is above the law", as Creel and Fox never seem to tire of braying.
At the end of February, La Jornada revealed that both President Fox and his attorney general Macedo de la Concha have similarly disobeyed court injunctions and, like Creel, were never brought to justice.
PAN dissidents who suffered decades of PRI political chicanery shake their heads in disbelief to see National Action use the same kind of dirty tricks against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the PRD. "The PANista are like the Jews–first the Nazis committed genocide against the Jews and now the Jews do it to the Palestinians" mused Don Juanito Suarez, a tailor and one-time PAN partisan who sympathizes with El Peje, while taking his evening tea at the popular downtown Café La Blanca here.
The congressional vote on the desafuero is anticipated by the ides of March but is subject to legislative manipulation and the PAN-PRI alliance may hold the measure off the floor until Holy Week (March 20th-27th) when the capitol empties out and Mexico goes to the beach. Although scheduling the crucifixion of AMLO at the same time as that of Jesus Christ puts a biblical cast on Lopez Obrador’s martyrdom, bringing the vote to a head during the high holy days would theoretically diminish the mobs of Peje supporters determined to lay siege to the congress and prevent a vote from being taken. In the past, campesinos have ridden horses into the chambers and protestors tossed heavy coinage from the balconies to prevent unpopular votes by the congress.
As the nation counts down to Desafuero Day, the capitol is on tense stand-by. Lopez Obrador has called for massive civil disobedience on the day the decision comes down–the law stipulates that all parties be notified 72 hours before the vote is taken, giving the PRD and its allies ample time to organize the turn-out. For weeks, AMLO’s supporters have been working door to door, organizing neighborhood resistance to the desafuero, handing out little Mexican flag lapel buttons, and hanging house signs that read "Todos Somos El Peje" ("We Are All El Peje") from every pedestrian overpass in town. Encampments of protestors have begun to sprout up in public parks and plazas, always a sign that activists are digging in. Brigades of young people invade football matches and parade through subway cars passing out literature and calling for popular support for El Peje. "Maybe we need to pile up sticks and stones in our homes" one passenger laughed in earshot of La Jornada collaborator Jaime Aviles, an outspoken AMLO booster,
Aviles also reports that the Mayor’s older supporters –he has a huge constituency of senior citizens for whom he now provides a $60 USD monthly stipend in lieu of any federal help for pensionless retirees whatsoever–are pooling resources to pay for anti-desafuero Masses to be celebrated in many federal district churches. Last week saw the first pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe to ask the Brown Madonna’s intervention to halt the desafuero.
Signs of impending unrest abound. PRI and PAN national headquarters here are reportedly contracting private security forces in the event of unruly mob attacks, not trusting to the Mexico City police to get the job done, and the French news agency Agence France-Presse just handed out gas masks to all its reporters for the turbulent days to come. Writing in La Jornada, Aviles suggests that long dormant guerrilla groups in the capital’s outlying suburbs could be stirred to act as the result of the desafuero.
In a March 1st communique from the mountains of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos made it clear that while the Mayan rebels do not support Lopez Obrador or the party he represents, the Zapatistas view his possible desafuero as a serious injustice and call upon all their members to join in demonstrations around the country to oppose it.
President Fox is empowered by the constitution to impose martial law on the capitol should the protests turn too hectic and even declare a state of exception.
In recent weeks, the embattled mayor has received support from unexpected corners including the National Human Rights Commission, the rector of the National University (UNAM), and the Cardinal of Mexico City, Norberto Rivera, the nation’s most powerful Churchman whose cathedral sits just across the Zocalo plaza from City Hall.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s powers of convocation are formidable–he has repeatedly filled the Zocalo, the great central plaza spreading beneath his City Hall offices, to the brim with his supporters when his authority has been challenged in the past. Giving the rising tide of fury in the city at the PAN-PRI frame-up, political calculators figure AMLO could put a half million marchers in the streets of Mexico City on the day of reckoning, a number that would rival what his one-time mentor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was able to turn out after the PRFI stole the 1988 presidential election from him in a veritable Tsunami of fraud.
Indeed, the desafuero of Lopez Obrador bears a marked resemblance to that disgraceful episode in recent Mexican electoral history. In both instances, a left-wing candidate who seemed destined to win the Mexican presidency was eliminated from contention, Cardenas by the wholesale burning of ballots and vote count "alchemy" that turned his victory to defeat overnight. Now with AMLO about to be scratched from the ballot, the PAN and the PRI will save the electorate the trouble of going to the polls at all.
As in 1988, the "coraje" (both courage and anger) of the protestors is bound to escape PRD control during prolonged confrontations, considers left political columnist Luis Hernandez Navarro. With civil society in the driver’s seat, occupying public buildings and tying up Mexico City traffic day after day, Navarro contemplates the crystallization of "a movement of historic proportions" that will far outstrip the reinstatement of AMLO’s candidacy. "Fox and the right do not yet understand what the desafuero has unleashed."
(To be continued)
JOHN ROSS has just been awarded the 2005 Upton Sinclair Award (an "Uppie") by the San Pedro California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for his latest cult classic "Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left".