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Mexico’s Rising Star Fights Back in Corruption Fracas

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Times Staff Writer

Stung by televised videotapes showing one aide stuffing his pockets with apparent bribe money and another playing $300-a-hand blackjack in Las Vegas, the mayor of Mexico City mobilized tens of thousands of people Sunday in a show of support for his corruption-tainted administration.

Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who was far ahead of other probable presidential contenders in polls until the scandal erupted, said he had been set up by federal officials and other “perverse forces.” He said one of the tapes came from a construction tycoon who had himself filmed while making a $45,000 payoff after the city had begun investigating him for fraud.

Raising his fist and striking a messianic tone, one of the most popular public figures in Mexico battled for his political life in one of the country’s most riveting scandals in recent years. Even as two more city officials resigned Sunday, he described himself as “a ray of hope” for a better society.

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“Those who staged this scandal do not have the least intention of combating corruption, but the deliberate and perverse purpose of damaging me politically,” the mayor told about 50,000 cheering, angry supporters in the Zocalo, the city’s vast central square. “To the devil with these tricks!”

Mexico is still struggling to stem official malfeasance nearly four years after President Vicente Fox ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had developed a reputation for corruption during its seven decades of rule. In recent weeks, hidden cameras have given Mexicans a rare look at corrupt acts and shown that graft crosses party lines.

The first video, televised last month, showed the leader of the Green Ecological Party of Mexico, Jorge Emilio Gonzalez, negotiating a $2-million bribe for intervening in favor of a port development project in an environmental reserve near Cancun.

Next to air was footage of Mexico City Finance Director Gustavo Ponce gambling far beyond the limits of his salary at a casino in Las Vegas. News reports and mini-bar receipts showed he spent lavishly on 17 trips to Las Vegas in recent months.

In the wake of that scandal, Rene Bejarano, the mayor’s party whip in the city assembly, appeared March 3 on a popular public affairs TV show to demand honesty from officials, only to be confronted by a surprise.

“What about this?” asked the TV host, a green-haired clown called Brozo, who aired a video featuring Bejarano taking stacks of U.S. currency from construction tycoon Carlos Ahumada and methodically packing them into a briefcase. When the bag was filled, Bejarano stuffed the remaining cash into his suit pockets.

Lopez Obrador has fired Ponce and obliged Bejarano to leave the assembly pending an investigation. On Sunday, two borough presidents -- one who took cash and one who received death threats for denouncing graft -- stepped down. All four officials belong to the mayor’s leftist Democratic Revolution Party, the third-largest in Mexico after the PRI and Fox’s center-right National Action Party.

Fox has called the scandals a healthy result of a freer media in the post-PRI era. “Today there is nowhere to hide,” he said recently. “We are living in a glass box. Everything is seen, everything is heard, everything is read. This is democracy. This is change.”

The tapes represent the first black mark on the populist mayor’s image as an honest politician who lives in a middle-class apartment and drives a Nissan compact. Many credit him and his party, which has governed the city since 1997, with curbing extortion from ordinary citizens by police and bureaucrats.

An undeclared candidate for president in 2006, Lopez Obrador has won a following for building new highways around the traffic-clogged city and giving $60-a-month handouts to the elderly. Last year, he boasted that his popularity made him “indestructible.” But a nationwide survey in the Reforma newspaper showed that the percentage of respondents who backed Lopez Obrador for the presidency had slipped from 37 before the videos to 24 -- close to the level of his nearest competitors. Those describing the mayor as honest fell from 59% to 30%.

A career politician who once blockaded oil wells in his native state of Tabasco to protest electoral fraud, Lopez Obrador seems determined to fight.

He spoke calmly about the scandal Friday during lunch with journalists and executives of The Times, listing his efforts to halt corruption through competitive bidding for city contracts and voicing confidence about confronting his critics.

In his speech Sunday, the 50-year-old mayor admitted “making errors in appointing officials” and added, “I will be able to correct that.”

But his counterattack focused less on misdeeds during his watch and more on “the hypocrisy and cynicism” of his opponents. “They want to show that all politicians are equally corrupt and there are no alternatives for real change,” he said.

He asserted that the plan to film his legislative chief taking a bribe from Ahumada grew out of a Feb. 20 meeting among the construction magnate, the head of the federal intelligence service and Sen. Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a member of Fox’s party who has acknowledged distributing the videotape.

The mayor said Ahumada was cornered after the arrest of two business partners that day in an investigation of the city’s purchase of $3 million worth of sewer-cleaning services that were never provided.

Ahumada, a target in the same fraud investigation, contended that the money he handed over on the video was extorted from him to support the mayor’s presidential campaign. He is now in hiding, reportedly in Cuba, and is widely suspected of possessing more damaging videos.

Mexicans have followed the intrigues with fascination. Denise Dresser, a political scientist and columnist, said many Mexicans cared more about conspiracy theories than corruption itself, which they still take for granted.

“That’s the sentiment Lopez Obrador is playing to,” Dresser said.

Sunday’s rally featured banners likening the mayor to revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata as well as Jesus Christ. Many who attended said they would support him no matter how many videos surfaced.

“Here there was a briefcase full of money, but so what?” said homemaker Ethel Lorena Macias. “Why don’t they jail Carlos Salinas de Gortari and all the others?”

That former Mexican president, she said, “filled many, many briefcases with the money of the people.”


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