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Mexico City’s Mayor Sworn In Amid Cheers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a historic day of confetti and speeches, leftist icon Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was sworn in Friday as Mexico City’s mayor, assuming the most powerful job ever held by an opposition figure in this nation’s modern political system.

Because of the importance of the teeming capital--the center of Mexico’s political, economic and cultural life--Cardenas’ rule is anticipated as a key test of whether the left will be able to govern the country. He is the first mayor in seven decades not to come from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

He was greeted Friday like a conquering hero in the streets near city hall, where thousands of onlookers cheered, tossed confetti and clutched balloons reading “Welcome to Democracy.”

In a poll reflecting citizens’ widespread hopes for Cardenas, 71% of those interviewed by the daily Reforma said the sinking, sooty, crime-ridden city will improve under his stewardship.

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“We are going to take the city back from the criminals,” Cardenas pledged in a speech in the capital’s gilded council chambers after taking the oath of office. Applause rang out from the hall packed with politicians, diplomats and leading intellectuals.

In a sign of the importance of the event, President Ernesto Zedillo himself attended, sitting beside Cardenas on the dais.

The new mayor also vowed a “battle to the end against all forms of corruption.”

Cardenas became the first popularly elected mayor of the capital last July, in the crowning achievement of his decade-long battle for high office after he bolted from the PRI. His election was seen as a vindication after his loss in the presidential race in 1988--a defeat that many Mexicans blame on government fraud. He is the son of a beloved former president, Lazaro Cardenas. Mayors had all been presidential appointees until Zedillo ushered in electoral reforms to allow the vote in the capital.

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Cardenas, a lanky 63-year-old noted for his dour expression, must grapple with immense problems in governing Mexico City, the core of the world’s biggest and most polluted metropolitan area.

Residents’ chief concern is a crime rate that has jumped at least 50% in the past three years. Kidnappings and bank robberies are rife. So many people have been assaulted in the city’s distinctive green Volkswagen taxis that the U.S. State Department advises against taking them.

The police have not only been helpless to stop crime, they are also accused of being among the main participants in the violence.

In an apparent acknowledgment of the crisis in the police, Cardenas has named a retired air force officer as head of security. But the new mayor announced Friday that he will end the previous government’s practice of using soldiers to patrol some neighborhoods.

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Cardenas also pledged to try to reduce the choking smog that leaves the capital with only about 30 days a year of satisfactory air quality. Almost 5 million tons of contaminants are pumped into the air each year by 4.5 million cars and taxis, scores of factories and other sources of pollution.

As if those problems were not enough, one in five employable adults in the urban core of Mexico City’s 8.5 million is jobless or underemployed. The unemployed compete for scarce jobs with the 10 million residents in the city’s outer neighborhoods. And hundreds more people arrive every day from the countryside in search of a better life.

With such problems multiplying in recent years, it was little wonder that tens of thousands of residents thronged the capital’s historic center Friday to welcome a new mayor promising change.

Supporters lined the streets and jammed balconies, waving banners and flags, as Cardenas strolled about a dozen blocks from the city legislature to the mayor’s palace in the central Zocalo square after his inauguration. Friday evening, about 50,000 jammed into the Zocalo for a greeting by Cardenas and a fiesta.

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“This is the achievement of everyone who voted on July 6. July 6 was a watershed,” Cardenas told the cheering crowd, referring to the unusually clean elections.

Paula de la Cruz, 39, a shop owner in the Zocalo, observed of Cardenas: “He’s the best politician we’ve had. The people love him and support him. We believe he’ll help us, that salaries will increase and we’ll see more jobs.”

Such comments suggested that many people have stratospheric expectations that will be tough to fulfill.

But Ramon Sosamontes, a former congressman from Cardenas’ Democratic Revolution Party, said the stakes are so high that the new mayor has no choice but to perform.

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“A failure could mean the disappearance of the left,” Sosamontes said. “We have to show we can govern. This is historic. Here, we are putting our political life on the line.”

If Cardenas succeeds, he is considered a likely presidential candidate in 2000--something the crowds were all too aware of Friday.

“Today, mayor! Tomorrow, president!” they cried.

Cardenas started out with one clear advantage: the image of departing Mayor Oscar Espinoza, one of the most unpopular figures in government.

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Cardenas’ inauguration opened a new chapter in Mexican politics, in which the mayor of the capital must coexist with a government still dominated by the PRI.

While Zedillo has publicly supported Cardenas, some observers question whether the ruling party will try to undermine the opposition mayor. Like Washington, the Mexican capital has limited power and must rely on the federal government in matters such as incurring debt.

The difficulty of co-governance in Mexico has become obvious since the elections in July produced a divided Congress for the first time in seven decades.

Late Thursday, deputies debating a budget bill traded punches on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies. Opposition deputies have vowed to cut the sales tax, putting them on a collision course with the president and his party. The debates over the issue have been among the most heated Mexico’s Congress has witnessed.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

PROFILE: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas

Born: May 1, 1934, the son of Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas

Family: Married to Celeste Batel; three children

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Education: Civil engineering degree in 1957 from the National Autonomous University of Mexico

Career highlights:

1976--Elected senator as a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

1980--Elected governor of the state of Michoacan.

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1987--Broke with PRI to found National Democratic Front.

1988--Lost presidential race to Carlos Salinas de Gortari in controversial election.

1994--Finished third in presidential race.

July 6, 1997--Elected mayor of Mexico City.

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Source: Times staff and wire reports; compiled by SCOTT J. WILSON / Los Angeles Times


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