At Large

El Peje the Populist

Mexico City's leftist mayor is set to become his country's next president -- if he can keep out of jail.

By 4.22.05

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At four o'clock in the morning Nicolas Mollinedo Bastar pulls a beat-up Nissan sedan in front of a nondescript apartment house in one of Mexico City's middle-class neighborhoods. Moments later Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 52, the mayor of Mexico City, known here by his nickname El Peje ("little gar"), settles into the backseat surrounded by his posse of female bodyguards and sets off to his daily news conference. Some chauffeurs might complain about having to get up so early every morning. Not Mr. Bastar who earns $5,600 a month as the mayor's driver and "logistics coordinator," a princely sum by Mexican standards.

Mr. Bastar, however, may soon find himself out of a very lucrative job. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors filed felony abuse of authority charges against Lopez Obrador. Before a warrant could be issued for the mayor's arrest, however, two legislators of a rival party (one the niece of presumed presidential candidate Santiago Creel) posted the $180 bail. National Action Party (PAN) deputies Gabriela Cuevas and Jorge Lara told a Mexican newspaper that they paid the mayor's bail "in good faith," adding they did not wish to see Lopez Obrador become a martyr behind bars.

El Peje's supporters call these latest developments part of a politically motivated witch-hunt that only proves that Mexico's fledgling democracy is a sham. Washington Post columnist Marcela Sanchez notes that El Peje "may end up in prison for the unusual crime of failing to stop construction of a road to a hospital." (The charge is ignoring a court order, not "failing to stop construction of a hospital road," and a fine, not prison time, is more likely.) Prosecutors counter that no one should be above the law, especially not the second most powerful man in Mexico. And they suggest that the fact that El Peje is being held accountable for his crimes is proof that Mexico's democracy is stronger than ever.

These are the facts: In November 2000, former Mexico City Mayor Rosario Robles expropriated 13,000 square meters of prime real estate in the booming Santa Fe section of the city for an access road for a British-run hospital. In December, as Lopez Obrador was sworn in as mayor, developers sued the government claiming they were unable to access the property. The developers won a federal court order barring further construction. Road construction, however, continued. Prosecutors say the new mayor committed a minor criminal offense when he "knowingly and repeatedly" disregarded the court order. The same court in August 2001, requested that the federal attorney general force the mayor to comply with the court injunction. According to Lopez Obrador's biographer George W. Grayson, the attorney general subsequently filed several additional actions against the mayor for crimes against the administration of justice. Finally, in May 2004, the attorney general requested the removal of Lopez Obrador's government immunity from prosecution. The mayor, in his defense, says he only widened part of the road, and halted construction when the court order came to his attention.

This April a commission of four members of the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico's Congress) held 3-1 that there was sufficient cause to suspect a crime had been committed. On April 7, Lopez Obrador argued his case before the full Chamber of Deputies. After a long, drawn-out session where the mayor accused President Vicente Fox and former President Carlos Salinas of conspiring against him because of his opposition to pro-U.S. economic policies, the Chamber voted 360-127 to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity.

IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE vote 100,000 supporters gathered in Mexico City's Revolution Square to protest the Chamber's decision. These were El Peje's people -- university students, the poor, of course, and union workers, given free booze and the day off and bused in to swell the crowds. And why shouldn't they support him? Since coming to power in 2000, Lopez Obrador has spent money like a 16-year-old girl with her first credit card, undertaking expensive renovation projects like an $80 million elevated highway, and building thousands of low-income housing units. He has doled out $60 a month to senior citizens and the disabled, given away free school supplies and scholarships to the poor, tax breaks to female heads of households, and founded the University of Mexico City which accepts students not because of grades or merit, but by luck of the draw.

Lopez Obrador might very well scorn wealthy capitalists, but when he needed millions in cash to renovate his crime-ridden historic center he did not hesitate to ask Latin America's richest man, Carlos Slim, for a handout. Thanks to Slim's bankroll the mayor is now able to show off an attractive new shopping and residential area for tourists and Mexico City's elite. Meanwhile the nation's capital has fallen deeper in debt, and the mayor has been forced to slash government salaries and sell off public lands.

KNOWN FOR HIS BEAT-UP sedan, his modest apartment, his much-touted solitary walks through gang-ridden streets, and his frequent political theatrics, El Peje has continually fine-tuned his image as the Common Candidate, El Peje the Populist, and Mexico's Monk. But critics see Lopez Obrador's asceticism as a cynical though effective ploy to win votes, much like his frequent anti-American harangues.

It has not always been thus. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was born in the small town of Tepetitan in the swampy, oil-rich Gulf Coast state of Tabasco. His father, a hotel restaurateur in Chiapas, sent his son to the National Autonomous University of Mexico City where he graduated with a degree in political science. Lopez Obrador quickly joined the ruling PRI party, but after PRI was accused of stealing the 1988 election, Lopez Obrador left to help found the leftist party, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

In the 1994 elections for state governor, Lopez Obrador won 40 percent of the vote -- despite being vastly outspent by his PRI opponent. He was elected mayor of Mexico City in July 2000. El Peje's rise is seen as indicative of the power of the new left in Latin America, and he is now often compared to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva in Brazil and Tabare Vazquez in Uruguay.

Thus far Lopez Obrador's rhetoric about putting the poor first has paid big dividends in a country where there is widespread poverty. And despite his legal difficulties (or because of them) Lopez Obrador continues to lead presidential preferential polls by as much as 15 percent. Opponents like President Fox are concerned about El Peje's tendency to "put people first," particularly over the rule of law. Lopez Obrador has repeatedly shown his disregard for Mexican law and institutions, once leading a group of farmers -- who claimed their lands had been contaminated -- to illegally close several oil ducts in an attempt to pressure the national oil company to pay off the farmers. On that occasion Lopez Obrador managed to avoid prosecution.

Others in El Peje's administration have not been so fortunate. His finance secretary Gustavo Ponce reportedly made dozens of trips to Las Vegas in 2003-04 where he squandered city funds on gambling, hookers, booze and expensive hotel rooms. Three million in city funds are still unaccounted for. At first the mayor called the scandal part of a conspiracy by his political enemies, even suggesting the missing Ponce had been murdered. Ponce eventually turned up and now sits in a Mexican cell.

Shortly after that the mayor's personal secretary Rene Bejarano was nabbed stuffing his pockets with $32,000 in cash. Bejarano claimed the payoffs given to him by businessman Carlos Ahumada was a contribution for the political campaign of a city borough mayor. The mayor blamed a conspiracy by Ahumada (now doing time for fraud) and his political opponents. Ahumada claimed he felt threatened by Bejarano's cash demands and videotaped the encounters for his own security, and only released the tapes after his contracts with the city government were canceled. Bejarano has since joined Mr. Ponce in the slammer.

LIKE MANY SOCIALIST leaders, Lopez Obrador fancies himself a latter-day messiah, one who believes he can save his country with simple solutions to complex problems, mostly involving the redistribution of cash and property. Part messiah, part moral crusader, he has also called for public officials to stop keeping mistresses.

Now add to this image that of martyr -- one taken down by a vast right-wing conspiracy of politicians and international business interests uneasy about a socialist coming to power. "The mantle of political martyr is one that sits well on Lopez Obrador's shoulders," writes Laura Carlsen, of the left-leaning International Relations Center. "From prison, his case could burgeon into a symbol of all that's wrong with Mexico today, greatly enhancing his popularity and his prospects for the presidency." Grayson too notes that "the populist Lopez Obrador has played the role of victim like Olivier portrayed Hamlet."

ON WEDNESDAY, EL PEJE'S people were back in Revolution Square, this time some 10,000, waving yellow flags and shouting, "You are not alone!" Lopez Obrador, a populist demagogue in his element, made the most of the opportunity, denouncing the PAN deputies as cowards and swindlers and President Fox as a traitor to democracy. Needless to say, the people loved it.

El Peje's supporters are planning a march and mass demonstration in Mexico City on Sunday. Police anticipate this weekend's protests may turn violent. Meanwhile experts say El Peje could renounce the bail and insist on going to jail, which would doubtless increase his media coverage as well as his ratings in the polls. The mayor will have until January 15, 2006, to be cleared of all charges in order to be eligible to run for the presidency. A judge's decision is expected within the next 10 days whether to dismiss the charges or to allow the case to go to trial. A decision to go ahead with the trial would almost certainly put an end to El Peje's presidential campaign, at least for the 2006 election.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.