Mexicans Taking to Streets to Protest Election Results

Times Staff Writer

The old man grimaced as medics worked to immobilize his broken right leg. It had been smashed by stick-wielding police who dispersed a political demonstration in brutal fashion.

The rescuers lacked bandages to secure a splint, so they used what was at hand--a torn blue and white banner of the conservative National Action Party, a strong anti-government force in this city in the high desert of central Mexico.

Although the incident, captured by a local television news photographer, occurred Jan. 1, the sight of the injured victim wrapped in the banner of an underdog party may become Mexico's political image for 1986.

In towns from the U.S. border to the Guatemalan frontier, Mexicans have been protesting election results with increasing frequency, not only where the National Action Party is the loser but also where other small parties fail to gain office in competition with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico's ruling juggernaut.

Almost always, the voters complain of fraud. Sometimes, the protests turn violent.

In San Luis Potosi, a mining center and state capital 300 miles northwest of Mexico City, one man died and scores were wounded when plainclothes police broke up a demonstrating crowd on New Year's Day. In Chiapas in far-southern Mexico, irate voters took over four city halls. The ensuing violence left at least two dead.

In recent months, demonstrators have protested about voting irregularities in several states, including Jalisco, San Luis Potosi, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Tlaxclala, Baja California and Tamaulipas. Last year, strong protests over election results erupted in the state of Sonora along the border with Arizona and in Nuevo Leon and its capital, Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city.

More Unrest Seen

The country could be in for more unrest. This year, 13 governorships and about 200 mayoralties are being contested. The Institutional Revolutionary Party--the PRI, as it is universally known by its Spanish initials--rarely loses elections, fair or foul, and seems intent on recapturing city halls that it lost in past elections.

The PRI has never lost a governor's race during its almost 60 years in power.

"Voters are upset, but there are no outlets for change," said Salvador Nava, an anti-PRI politician and former mayor of San Luis Potosi. "These demonstrations are the only way, for now."

The recent disturbances have caught the attention of President Miguel de la Madrid. "Countries that divide themselves, that break their system of law and social peace, easily become prisoner of international turbulence," he told a gathering of government and armed forces officials.

"Guerrilla Force"

The PRI's powerful labor leader, Fidel Velasquez, accused the National Action Party, which is strongest in the northern states, of using "guerrilla force" to attack the government.

De la Madrid came to office three years ago promising a cleanup of corruption and an opening of the country's electoral system. Widespread reports of voting fraud appear to have reduced that pledge to rhetoric, and the resulting unrest has marred the country's cherished image as a stable democracy.

In July, officials in several towns were seen stuffing ballot boxes. In the December mayoral elections in San Luis Potosi, observers reported seeing ballot tallies marked in favor of the National Action Party candidate, only to hear results that favored the PRI.

Like protests that followed elections elsewhere, the demonstration in San Luis Potosi occurred on the day when the new PRI mayor was inaugurated, and like some others, it got quickly out of hand.

A videotape made by Channel 13 in San Luis Potosi, an independent station, showed a dramatic sequence of police brutality.

At the beginning, perhaps 1,000 demonstrators gathered at the town center to hear speeches by the losing mayoral candidate of the National Action Party--or PAN by its Spanish-language initials. Some on the fringe of the crowd dumped garbage on city hall steps and threw rotten eggs at the 130-year-old building's facade.

Police Attacked

Opposition speakers urged the crowd to halt such actions, but some of the demonstrators seemed drunk and kept throwing eggs and vegetables, sometimes taking aim at plainclothesmen.

Later, a government functionary appeared, berated the crowd, praised the new mayor and was set upon by some bystanders. No sooner had the demonstrators run down and kicked the bureaucrat than the plainclothesmen, produced long, thin bats and began beating nearly everyone within reach.

They repeatedly kicked a fallen demonstrator, squirted tear gas in the faces of old ladies and whipped an elderly man who tried to escape into the cathedral. Youths had to run gauntlets of swinging sticks to leave the plaza.

A dead man was found blocks away from the scene. The government said he was hit by a car. The opposition asserted that he was beaten and staggered away before falling dead.

About two hours after the melee, someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the City Hall door. The accumulated trash there burned, setting small offices at the entrance of the building aflame.

No Police Arrested

Last Monday, about 15,000 demonstrators returned to the plaza to call for the resignation of both the mayor and state governor. No policemen have been charged for excesses during the melee, although 13 demonstrators have been arrested.

At least five PRI functionaries in San Luis resigned in protest of the brutality. A move in Congress to impeach the state governor, Florencio Salazar, has gone nowhere. The PRI dominates the national legislature.

Opposition and government observers agree that Mexico's economic difficulties underlie such episodes of unrest.

"In all the country, we see a situation of crisis in the economy, and if people have to blame someone, they blame the government," Gov. Salazar said.

"If there's hunger, there are going to be protests," said Nava, who was elected mayor three years ago when he headed an opposition coalition. By law, mayors cannot run for reelection.

Aside from agreement on the effect of the economy on a demoralized public, the opposition and the government here diverge on just about everything else.

PAN followers and independent observers believe that the opposition party won City Hall but was robbed of victory. They contend that the Jan. 1 demonstration and subsequent rally reflects the will of most citizens of San Luis Potosi, people who have long been at odds with Mexico City.

The PRI government scoffs at such notions. "It is natural that the loser of the election should complain," said Jose de Jesus Gonzalez, secretary to the mayor of San Luis Potosi. "What is 1,000 protesters out of a population of 250,000?"

The authorities were upset at the vividness of the television news broadcast, and the station news director was called to Mexico City for questioning.

"This is orchestrated to destabilize the government," said Gregorio Marin, spokesman for the governor's office. "You know, the communists are backing the PAN in this. It must be stopped before it gets going."

The government response to voter protests is usually to let them fizzle out. Sometimes, complaints of vote fraud are judged to be valid and elections are nullified.

So it is the season of discontent in San Luis Potosi state. The town hall in Ebano has been cordoned off by protesting voters. In Xilitla, a band of women kidnaped the newly elected mayor because he was keeping the names of new staff members secret.

And it may be no wonder why the mayor of Aquismon took out a half-page ad in a San Luis newspaper in support of Gov. Salazar in his battle with the PAN.

The Aquismon municipal building is occupied by supporters of a losing independent candidate, and the new mayor has not yet been able to enter his office.

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