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Boulevard Blockade Prompts Grumbling in Mexico City

Times Staff Writer

Work crews pounded stakes into the roadway and raised steel frames for the giant tarps that rose Monday over Paseo de la Reforma, the capital’s grand boulevard that protesters overnight turned into a pedestrian walkway.

Former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador drew on City Hall support to clear the way for encampments on the signature thoroughfare that he said would remain until a federal elections tribunal agreed to his demand for a recount of the July 2 presidential election.

City traffic snarled and business owners complained, but there was little trouble as hundreds of protesters made camp on the central square, known as the Zocalo, and along Paseo de la Reforma. Volunteers set up roadblocks to stop all but motorcycle and bike traffic.

“The election was a fraud, and we’re here because it’s time to fight for what we believe in,” said Itzia Mora, 22, a violinist and university student. She was one of the first to pitch her tent on a center lane of the Reforma, under the shadow of the 55-story Torre Mayor, Mexico’s tallest building.

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Lopez Obrador alleges that fraud and government conspiracy threw the election to conservative Felipe Calderon, who won by 244,000 votes in the official count. Lopez Obrador, a leftist who led in polls for most of the campaign, has promised escalating civil disobedience until the ballot boxes are reopened.

The seven-judge Federal Electoral Tribunal is reviewing what Lopez Obrador alleges are statistical inconsistencies that are proof of fraud. The tribunal has until Sept. 6 to declare a winner, call for a recount or throw out the election.

Lopez Obrador supporters began transforming city streets within hours of his call Sunday to set up the protest camps. They appear to be laying in for a long siege.

As men raised tarp shelters Monday, women chopped tomatoes and onions to accompany giant pots of boiling meat that sat atop propane-fueled stoves. Vans were allowed past checkpoints set up by Lopez Obrador supporters to drop off cases of soda, water, cookies, bread and cold cuts. Electricity flowed from tangles of wire hooked up to municipal light posts.

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So far, the number of campers’ tents is small compared with the hundreds of thousands who attended Sunday’s rally in support of a recount. With the full brunt of seasonal rains beginning this week, the question is how many more will join.

“All citizens must understand that if there’s no democracy in Mexico, if we don’t stand for democracy, there won’t be any justice, or political stability or peace,” Lopez Obrador told supporters in the Zocalo during a midday speech. “Although there will be inconveniences, this is a fundamental cause.”

Closing down Mexico City’s central boulevard is a risky test of Lopez Obrador’s local popularity -- before stepping down as mayor a year ago to run for president, he had won support for adding a second deck to freeways and starting monthly payments to seniors and single mothers.

Commute times doubled and in some cases tripled Monday. Protesters closed only 4.6 miles of street in a giant metropolis of 20 million people, but they created a ripple effect across the city. About 200,000 people travel along the Reforma to the Zocalo each day, transportation officials said.

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Besides time, business leaders say firms will lose $10 million a day.

“I haven’t sold one thing today; the tourists won’t even come close,” said Maria Vargas, who has a Mexican artisan store on the Reforma, about two blocks from the U.S. Embassy. “None of the protesters are worrying about that, about the pocketbooks of thousands of families affected by the blockade.”

The consensus among many passersby -- shoppers, office workers -- was that their former mayor had become a pain. Many observers writing in Mexican newspapers said he had gone off the deep end.

“The reality is that 65% of voters did not vote for him,” said Denise Dresser, an author and columnist for Reforma newspaper. “There is a silent majority, and I wonder how they will react to not being able to drive down the main arteries of their city?”

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President Vicente Fox, through a spokesman, said the protesters were constitutionally protected and that his hands were tied unless the current mayor asked for help, unlikely given Lopez Obrador’s strong local ties.

Calderon’s spokesman, meanwhile, asked Mexico City Mayor Alejandro Encinas to invoke a 2000 mayoral decree by Lopez Obrador that demands public security take measures to avoid blockades of primary highways. “No one can win in the streets what they didn’t win in the ballot box,” said Cesar Nava, the spokesman. Calderon has said the election was fair and that there are no legal grounds for a recount.

Three women sitting incongruously at a white plastic patio set in the middle of the Reforma rolled their eyes, saying they could set the country right in a snap.

“If they only counted the vote again, it would be simple,” said Guadalupe Ortiz Monasterio, 54. “Right now Mexico is divided.”

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Cecilia Sanchez and Carlos Martinez of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.


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