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Mexico's Surreal Elections

Anatomy of a Fraud Foretold

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City.

Mexican elections are stolen before, during, and after Election Day. Just look at what happened in the days leading up to the tightest presidential election in the nation’s history this past July 2nd.

By law, the parties and their candidates close down their campaigns three days before Election Day. On Wednesday night June 28th as the legal limit hove into sight, a team of crack investigators from the Attorney General’s organized crime unit descended on the maximum security lock-up at La Palma in Mexico state where former Mexico City Finance Secretary Guillermo Ponce awaits trial on charges of misuse of public funds ­ much of which he appears to have left on Las Vegas crap tables.

During his nearly six years in office, outgoing president Vicente Fox has often used his attorney general’s office against leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to counter his growing popularity, including a failed effort to bar the former Mexico City mayor from the ballot and even imprison him.

Now. in a desperate last minute electoral ploy by Fox’s right-wing National Action or PAN party to boost the fortunes of its lagging candidate Felipe Calderon, the agents tried to pressure Ponce into testifying that AMLO and his PRD party had used city revenues to finance his presidential campaign but Ponce proved a stand-up guy and ultimately rebuffed the government men.

The imprisoned finance secretary’s refusal to talk greatly disappointed both Televisa and TV Azteca, Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly that together have waged an unrelenting dirty war against Lopez Obrador for months and even years. Indeed, TV crews were stationed out in the La Palma parking lot to record Ponce’s thwarted confession for primetime news and both networks had reserved time blocks on their evening broadcasting, forcing the anchors to scramble to fill in the gap.

That was Wednesday night. On Thursday June 29th, Lopez Obrador’s people awoke to discover that the candidate’s electronic page had been hacked and a phony message purportedly signed by AMLO posted there calling upon his supporters to hit the streets "if the results do not favor us." Although officials of Lopez Obrador’s party, the PRD, immediately proved the letter to be a hoax, the pro-Calderon media broadcast the story for hours as if it were the gospel truth, eventually forcing the PRD and its allies to reaffirm that AMLO would abide by results released by the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the nation’s maximum electoral authority, even if the IFE’s numbers did not favor the candidate.

The PRD pledge was a reiteration of a "pact of civility" that Televisa had browbeat PRD president Lionel Cota into signing in early June. "Hackergate", as the scandal quickly became known, was designed to prevent Lopez Obrador’s supporters from protesting the fraud that the electoral authorities were already preparing.

That was Thursday. On Friday, June 30th, after more than five years of false starts, Fox’s special prosecutor for political crimes placed former president Luis Echeverria under house arrest for his role in student massacres in 1968 and 1971. Not only was the long overdue arrest portrayed by big media as a feather in Fox’s ­ and therefore, Calderon’s ­ cap but it also put the much-hated Echeverria, a pseudo-leftist with whom Calderon has often compared Lopez Obrador, back on the front pages. Since Echeverria is an emeritus member of the PRI, the bust killed two birds with one very opportunist stone.

That was Friday. On Saturday June 1st, two PRD poll watchers in conflictive Guerrero state were gunned down by unknowns, invoking the memory of hundreds of party supporters who were slaughtered in political violence after the 1988 presidential election was stolen from party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, up until now Mexico’s most conspicuous electoral fraud.

That was Saturday. On Sunday, July 2nd, Felipe Calderon and the PAN, aided and abetted by the connivance of the Federal Electoral Institute, Mexico’s maximum electoral authority, stole the presidential election before the nation’s eyes.

As mentioned above, Mexican elections are stolen before, during, and after the votes are cast. During the run-up to July 2nd, the IFE, under the direction of Calderon partisan Luis Carlos Ugalde systematically tried to cripple Lopez Obrador’s campaign. Venomous television spots that labeled AMLO "a danger" to Mexico were allowed to run ­ sometimes four to a single commercial break ­ for months on Televisa and TV Azteca despite an indignant outcry from Lopez Obrador’s supporters. The IFE only pulled the plug on the hit pieces under court order.
In a similar display of crystal clear bias, Ugalde and the IFE winked at Vicente Fox’s shameless, unprecedented, and unconstitutional campaigning for Calderon, and refused to intervene despite AMLO’s pleas for the president to remove himself from the election.

One of the IFE’s more notorious accomplishments in this year’s presidential elections was to engineer the non-vote of Mexicans in the United States, an effort that resulted in the disenfranchisement of millions of "paisanos" living north of the Rio Bravo. Undocumented workers were denied absentee ballot applications at consulates and embassies and more than a million eligible voters were barred from casting a ballot because their voter registration cards were not up to date and the IFE refused to update them outside of Mexico. Untold numbers of undocumented workers who could not risk returning to Mexico for a minimum 25 days to renew their credential were denied the franchise the IFE was sworn to defend. The PRD insists that the majority of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. would have cast a ballot for Lopez Obrador.

The left-center party has considerable strength in Los Angeles and Chicago, the two most important concentrations of Mexicans in the U.S. When thousands of legal Mexican residents from Los Angeles caravanned to Tijuana to cast a ballot for Lopez Obrador, they found the special polling places for citizens in transit had no ballots. The 750 ballots allocated to the special "casillas" had already been taken by members of the Mexican police and military.

In Mexico City, when voters in transit lined up at one special polling place according to noted writer Elena Poniatowska, hundreds of nuns presumably voting for the rightwing Calderon displaced them and were given the last of the ballots.

Back in the bad old days when the long-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) stole elections with impunity, most of the larceny took place in the polling stations ­ stolen or stuffed ballot boxes, multiple voting, altered vote counts ­ but since national and international observers like the San Francisco-based Global Exchange became a regular feature of the electoral landscape here, such overt fraud has diminished and the cumulative number of anomalies recorded in 130,000 casillas July 2nd seemed insignificant when compared to the size of the victory Calderon was already claiming the morning after ­ i.e. the John Kerry Syndrome, named in memory of the Democratic Party candidate’s sudden capitulation in Ohio in 2004 for much the same reason.

Nonetheless, this "fraude de hormiga" (fraud of the ants) which steals five to 10 votes a ballot box, when combined with the disappearance of voters from precinct lists ("razarados" or the razored ones) can fabricate an electoral majority ­ the long-ruling PRI (which failed to win a single state July 2nd) was a master of this sort of "alquemia" (alchemy) during seven decades of defrauding Mexican voters.

During the build-up to July 2nd, independent reporters here uncovered what appeared to be IFE preparations for cybernetic fraud. One columnist at the left national daily La Jornada discovered parallel lists of "razarados" on the IFE electronic page ­ one of the lists contained multiples of the other. While Julio Hernandez made a phone call to the IFE to question this phenomenon, the list containing the multiples vanished from his computer screen.

Similarly, radio reporter Carmen Aristegui was able to access the list of all registered voters through one of Felipe Calderon’s web pages ­ the list had been crossed with one containing the personal data of all recipients of government social development program benefits ­ former social development secretary (SEDESO) Josefina Vazquez Mota, is Calderon’s right hand woman and the PAN candidate’s brother-in-law Diego Zavala, a data processing tycoon, designed programs for both the IFE and the SEDESO. Utilizing voter registration rolls and lists of beneficiaries of government programs is considered an electoral crime here.

AMLO’s people went into July 2nd fearing a repeat of 1988 when the "system" purportedly "collapsed" on election night and did not come back up for ten days. When results were finally announced, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas has been despoiled of victory and the PRI’s Carlos Salinas was declared the winner.

Lopez Obrador’s fears were not unwarranted.

When on July 2nd AMLO’s voters turned out in record-breaking numbers, Interior Secretary officials urged major media not to release exit poll results that heralded a Lopez Obrador victory. Ugalde himself took to national television to declare the preliminary vote count too close to call and Mexicans went to bed without knowing whom their next president might be. Preliminary results culled from the casillas (PREP) that ran erratically all night and all day Monday showed Calderon with a 200,000 to 400,000-vote lead activating suspicions that cybernetic flimflam was in the works. When the PREP was finally shut down Monday night, the right winger enjoyed a commanding lead and Televisa and TV Azteca proclaimed him a virtual winner ­ U.S newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune followed suit and the White House was poised to celebrate a Calderon victory.

But there was one fly in the IFE’s ointment: 42 million Mexicans had voted July 2nd but only the votes of 39 million appeared in the PREP and Lopez Obrador demanded to know what had happened to the missing 3,000,000 voters. Then on a Tuesday morning news interview with Televisa, Luis Carlos Ugalde admitted that the missing votes had been abstracted from the PREP because of "inconsistencies". Indeed, 13,000 casillas ­ 10% of the total ­ had been removed from the preliminary count, apparently to create the illusion that Calderon had won the presidency.

Meanwhile all day Monday and into Tuesday, AMLO supporters throughout Mexico recorded thousands of instances of manipulation of the vote count ­ a ballot box in Mexico state registered 188 votes for Lopez Obrador but only 88 were recorded in the PREP. Another Mexico state ballot box was listed 20 times in the preliminary count. Whereas voters in states where the PAN rules the roost, cast more ballots for president than for senators and congressional representatives, voters in southern states where the PRD carried the day cast more ballots for congress than for the presidential candidates. Among the PRD states that purportedly followed this surreal pattern was Tabasco, the home state of two out of the three major party presidential candidates ­ Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo.

On Wednesday morning, with the tension mounting to the breaking point and demonstrators already massing in the street, a final vote count began in Mexico’s 300 electoral districts. Although the tabulation of the votes was programmed to finish Sunday, IFE officials pushed the recount ahead at breakneck speed. As the day progressed, PAN and PRI electoral officials, charging Lopez Obrador’s people with trying to obstruct the process, repeatedly rejected PRD demands to open the ballot boxes and recount the votes inside one by one in instances where Lopez Obrador’s tally sheets did not coincide with numbers in the PREP or were different from the sheets attached to the ballot box. When a recount was allowed such as in one Veracruz district, Lopez Obrador sometimes recouped as many as a thousand votes.

Surprisingly, by early afternoon, AMLO had accumulated a 2.6% lead over Calderon ­ and his supporters were dancing in the streets of Mexico City. And then, inexplicably, for the next 24 hours, his numbers went into the tank never to rise again at the same time that the right-winger’s started to increase incrementally. By late evening, AMLO was reduced to single digit advantage and a little after 4 AM Thursday morning, Calderon inched ahead. It had taken 12 hours to count the last 10% of the votes and still there were districts that had not reported.

When Lopez Obrador addressed the press at 8:30, he condemned "the spectacle of the dance of numbers" and announced that the PRD and its political allies would impugn the election ­ he had proof of anomalies in 40,000 polling places (a third of the total) and would present them to the "TRIFE", the supreme electoral tribunal with powers to annul whole districts and states, within the 72 hours dictated by the law.

Then, in his typically hesitating, Peter Falk-like way of saying things, AMLO called for the second election ­ the one that takes place in the street ­ beginning at 5 PM this Saturday in the great Zocalo plaza at the political heart of this bruised nation.

Although Lopez Obrador’s words were perhaps the culminating moment of this long strange journey, Mexico’s two-headed TV monster chose to ignore them – Televisa was otherwise occupied with "entertainment" news, and soon after the screens filled up with game shows and telenovelas (soap operas.) Although it had not yet concluded, the telenovela of the vote count disappeared into the ether of morning television.

This chronicle of a fraud foretold is an excerpt from JOHN ROSS’s forthcoming "Making Another World Possible ­ Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006" to be published this October by Nation Books.