Harvest of Discord From a Rural Tally

Times Staff Writer

Before last week, this rural region in the heartland state of Guanajuato was famous for producing some of the biggest vegetables Mexico has ever seen: a 90-pound cabbage and onions as big as volleyballs.

Now Valle de Santiago has produced another bountiful harvest, this one for conservative presidential candidate Felipe Calderon. The overwhelming margins of victory for Calderon in towns across Guanajuato -- a victory of almost 3 to 1 in Valle de Santiago, for example -- were essential to his narrow nationwide triumph.

Backers of his rival, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, call those margins a harvest of fraud. They produce precinct tally sheets with numerous inconsistencies to back up their claims. The inconsistencies are enough to justify reopening the ballot boxes and recounting the votes, they say.

Calderon’s supporters argue that the documents show nothing more nefarious than simple human error. They say their candidate won big because he and his National Action Party, or PAN, are more popular here, in the home state of President Vicente Fox, than anywhere else in Mexico.


A review of precinct tally sheets in Valle de Santiago found ample proof of sloppiness in the vote counting, including many mathematical and typographical errors, but no evidence of fraud.

In Guanajuato’s District No. 13, one of 300 electoral districts across Mexico, Calderon piled up a 44,000-vote margin, equivalent to almost one-fifth of his nationwide edge over Lopez Obrador, candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

Lopez Obrador’s supporters express disbelief over that margin.

“Valle de Santiago is the strongest bastion of the PRD in Guanajuato,” said Miguel Luna Hernandez, a PRD congressional deputy who won election here three years ago. “It doesn’t make any sense that they would give us such a terrible beating here.”

Among the inconsistencies that PRD supporters cite: Two precinct reports show polling stations at street addresses that do not exist in the city listed. In another precinct, two different vote totals were listed for Calderon. In others, the sum of leftover blank ballots, discarded ballots and votes cast did not equal the number of ballots issued to a precinct, though the difference was often just one or two ballots.

“I’ve been in politics for 25 years, and my gut feeling tells me that the will of the people here was not expressed in the tally of the votes,” Luna said. “Double voting and a double reporting of precincts took place.”

Luis Manuel Ramirez Gonzalez, the PAN leader in Valle de Santiago, concedes that the precinct tally sheets show errors, but insists that they are not evidence of any larger conspiracy against the left. “There are logical explanations, but the opposition is only interested in theatrics.”

Guanajuato, west of Mexico City near the center of the country, is a bastion of conservative Roman Catholicism. Fox remains widely popular here. Calderon’s majority in the state was slightly smaller than Fox’s six years ago when he became the first PAN member to win the presidency.

As governor, Fox was credited with bringing a General Motors factory to the state, which in turn attracted more industry. From 1999 to 2004, the economy here grew almost twice as fast as in the rest of Mexico.

“Guanajuato is a model for the rest of the country for what a PAN government can accomplish,” Ramirez Gonzalez said.

“Young people are joining us in bigger numbers because they see how Guanajuato is benefiting from our policies.”

The official tally sheets clearly raise concerns about the competence of the officials and citizen volunteers who oversaw the election. Much like the disputed U.S. presidential election in 2000, the irregularities here highlight the problems inherent in counting millions of votes, discrepancies that tend to be ignored in most elections, but come to the fore when contests are close.

Such irregularities should have been grounds for having numerous ballot boxes opened and votes recounted in the presence of district election officials when the final tally was prepared Wednesday, PRD activists say.

Across Guanajuato, PRD activists pressed local representatives of the Federal Electoral Institute, the government entity that organizes the vote, to open ballot boxes. More often than not, the institute’s officials declined to do so, according to witness and media reports.

In Valle de Santiago, PRD officials alleged that the head of the District 13 election office was blatantly biased in favor of the PAN.

That official, Claudia Martinez Torres, a onetime Mexico City teacher, said, “Things were done right, I can guarantee you that.”

Martinez Torres confirmed that during Wednesday’s tally of precinct reports, officials recounted ballots from only one of the 431 precincts in District 13. That recount added two votes to Calderon’s total. The numerous errors pointed out by PRD representatives in more than 300 additional precinct reports did not meet legal standards for a recount, she said.

“The errors were not in the reporting of the votes,” she said. “The law is very clear that there must be a grave error” in the tally of votes on the precinct report before the corresponding ballot box can be reopened.

Luna, the PRD congressman, disagreed vehemently during the public meeting at which the District 13 precinct vote was tallied. He told Martinez Torres that he would file a criminal complaint if she didn’t open the ballot boxes in question, a threat he carried out the next day.

“I told her she was an electoral delinquent,” Luna said.

In another district election office, in the city of Guanajuato, the state capital, PRD activists were more successful in their attempts to have officials open ballot boxes and recount votes.

“We opened 17 boxes,” Jose Belmonte Jaramillo said. “In those boxes we recovered 65 additional votes for Lopez Obrador.”

An official at the Federal Electoral Institute in Mexico City told The Times that the ballot boxes in District 13 could have been opened during the count if there were “evident errors” in the corresponding precinct reports.

All the ballot boxes from the district vote in Valle de Santiago remain under lock and key in local warehouses. As elsewhere, they are guarded by the Mexican army, awaiting a decision by the Federal Electoral Tribunal, a seven-judge panel, on whether they should be opened and their contents recounted.

“It’s up to the tribunal to decide what happens next,” Martinez Torres said.

Ramirez Gonzalez of the PAN said that his leftist opponents were partly to blame for their poor showing. The PRD failed to recruit poll watchers for each of the state’s 6,100 precincts. At some precincts in District 13, no PRD poll watcher signed the tally sheets.

“They didn’t do the work necessary to take care of their votes,” Ramirez Gonzalez said. “That’s not the fault of their opponents.”

The PRD has also gathered testimony from several dozen residents who say that on election day PAN activists tried to threaten or bribe them into voting for Calderon. PAN representatives denied the charges.

“Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we’re ignorant,” said Alma Delia Rico, who said she declined an offer of roofing materials. “If they don’t count our votes, we might even start a war.”