Mexican President Vicente Fox moved Wednesday to defuse a political crisis that has consumed the country for weeks, accepting the resignation of the attorney general who had been leading the prosecution of Mexico City’s popular mayor.
In a surprise announcement broadcast nationwide, Fox gave no reason for the departure of Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha, but analysts said the president acted because of growing criticism of the government’s criminal case against Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the top contender in next year’s presidential election.
The government’s prosecution of Lopez Obrador over what many here consider a minor municipal land dispute has ignited protests across Mexico and provoked harsh criticism from the international community. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Mexico City in support of the mayor, whose presidential candidacy has been jeopardized by the legal charges.
In his eight-minute address Wednesday night, Fox did not mention Lopez Obrador but appeared to be striking a conciliatory tone.
“My government will not obstruct anyone from participating in the coming federal election,” he said. He went on to say that he would soon propose legal reforms that would “preserve the rights of citizens subject to trial until a final sentence is given.”
Mexican law prohibits anyone facing criminal charges from running for public office.
“It will always be better for our Mexico if our disposition is to discuss rather than confront, if our purpose is conciliation and not division,” Fox added.
Lopez Obrador aide Marti Batres Guadarrama told reporters Wednesday night that the mayor was waiting for Fox’s call for conciliation to “convert to deeds.... It’s an interesting message, but you have to keep in mind that as long as the judicial case has not been thrown out, the threat has not ended.”
Fox, of the National Action Party, or PAN, took power in 2000, breaking the seven-decade-long grip of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Lopez Obrador belongs to the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, which has gained strength recently on the basis of the mayor’s popularity and widespread disappointment with Fox, who cannot run for reelection.
Fox had endorsed the prosecution of Lopez Obrador, saying that Mexico’s rule of law was at stake and that the most powerful officials in the land had to answer for their misdeeds just as average citizens did. But the argument failed to resonate with Mexicans, who perceive justice as frequently selective in its application.
Macedo’s departure comes amid growing popular unrest over the case against Lopez Obrador and concerns that excluding the fiery mayor from the presidential race was threatening Mexico’s fledgling democracy. In recent weeks, the popular outcry against the government, combined with Lopez Obrador’s savvy political maneuvering, drove Fox to try to defuse the situation, political analysts said.
“Fox has thrown in the towel,” said George Grayson, an expert on Mexico who teaches at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “Fox has finally realized that everything he’s done in the past [with regard to the Lopez Obrador situation] has been counterproductive.”
Macedo had been under increasing pressure not just for his management of the Lopez Obrador prosecution, but for other politically charged cases.
The highly publicized arrest in February of Nahum Acosta, a member of Fox’s travel staff, for allegedly feeding information to narco-traffickers, collapsed this month when a judge threw the case out for insufficient evidence.
Although Macedo reaped praise from Fox and U.S. officials for Mexico’s aggressive offensive against drug traffickers, the government lately had suffered some embarrassments. Drug traffickers were found in January to have the run of several federal prisons.
The government-run news agency reported that Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, a legal advisor from Fox’s home state of Guanajuato, would be named the new attorney general.
Macedo’s resignation appeared to be a stunning turn of fortune for Lopez Obrador, whose presidential prospects had been looking grim in recent weeks.
The controversy exploded April 7 when the lower house of Congress voted to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity from criminal prosecution, a process known as desafuero that ultimately could keep him off the 2006 presidential ballot.
He was in effect removed from his mayoral office and apparently was on his way to jail. His political opponents, the PAN and the PRI, proclaimed that justice was finally being served in the arcane 2001 municipal land dispute.
Prosecutors said the mayor had ignored a court order halting construction of a hospital access road, a charge that Lopez Obrador has denied. Though the mayor promised to wage a presidential campaign from behind bars, if necessary, some commentators began drafting his political obituary, assuming that Mexicans would grow tired of the case and forget about the mayor once he was out of sight.
But Lopez Obrador, 51, has been able to use his much-publicized legal travails to win sympathy here and abroad and bolster his profile.
Through a combination of effective grass-roots networking and large demonstrations, the mayor has convinced millions of Mexicans, as well as foreign governments and opinion-makers, that his personal political battle is linked to the country’s broader quest to safeguard its fragile democracy.
“He is an amazingly talented politician and does not miss opportunities,” said Pamela Starr, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City.
In addition to Sunday’s massive protest in the capital, Mexicans living abroad took to the streets the same day in Los Angeles, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Paris, believing that they were defending something much bigger than a scrappy civil servant with a self-righteous streak and, his critics charge, a propensity to play the martyr.
“We’re worried about the situation that exists in the country, the injustice, the illegality and the retreat of democracy,” Mexican student Alejandra Martinez, who participated in the Paris march, said in an e-mail interview this week.
Lopez Obrador sought to win support for his cause beyond Mexico by pushing two related messages: that in an age of terrorist threats, Mexico’s political stability is essential to U.S. domestic security; and that barring him from the ballot would be a step backward in terms of democracy and freedom in Mexico.
Those messages took hold. Over the past few weeks, major U.S. newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, as well as European papers, had weighed in with editorials castigating the Fox administration and arguing that blocking the mayor from the ballot was endangering Mexican democracy.
Some commentators here believe that the mayor’s gains thus far have had as much to do with his rivals’ tactical miscalculations as with his political skills.
“He has been helped enormously by ... a politically inept adversary,” Starr said, referring both to the Fox administration and the attorney general’s office.
The controversy over his legal case has allowed Lopez Obrador to shift attention away from problems in his management of Mexico City, including cost overruns on public projects and an ongoing criminal action against one of his former aides, said Grayson of the College of William & Mary. “All that has been swept under the rug and the issue has become, ‘Are you for Mexico’s [Nelson] Mandela or are you against him?’ ” Grayson said. “He’s just changed the terms of the debate.”
Cecilia Sanchez and Narayani Lasala in The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.