An insidious force is threatening the collective peace of mind in Lomas de Chapultepec, the Beverly Hills of this capital city.
The 10-foot walls and the electrified fences that are de rigueur for most homes can’t keep the force out, nor can the neighborhood’s ubiquitous private security guards. It seeps in, like a noxious vapor: the possibility that a certain leftist politician with a tropical accent might be elected the next president of Mexico in July.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a native of the sultry state of Tabasco and onetime mayor of Mexico City, is the boogeyman of the rich here. Once the clear front-runner, he is now in a tight race with Felipe Calderon, the candidate of the center-right National Action Party. The possibility of a Lopez Obrador victory has some wealthy Mexicans preparing as if for an earthquake or a hurricane.
“If he wins, this country will be ruined. I’ll be better off leaving,” declared Marta Garcia at the Starbucks in Lomas de Chapultepec, where a cafe mocha and a blueberry muffin cost slightly more than the daily minimum wage of $4.50. “I’ll move to Guatemala.”
With its main slogan of “For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First,” Lopez Obrador’s campaign has exposed deep class and ethnic tensions in Mexico. Although he’s made quiet overtures to the business community and financial markets, wealthy Mexicans and some in the country’s business community see him as a dangerous Robin Hood figure who will take from the rich to give to the poor.
The biggest fear of many wealthy Mexicans is Lopez Obrador’s vow to toughen tax enforcement to raise the revenue to pay for social programs. Mexico has a reputation in financial circles as a vast, tax-free “enterprise zone” for the rich.
“We have a saying here,” Mexico City economist Mario Correa said. “If you pay taxes in Mexico, then you don’t have a good accountant.”
Guillermo Oropeza, a sales manager for a movie distribution company and resident of Santa Fe, another exclusive enclave here, believes that Lopez Obrador lacks a basic understanding of economics.
“He doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to be president,” Oropeza said. “He can’t win. It would be absurd.”
At a campaign stop this month in the state of Jalisco, Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party, insisted that he had nothing against the wealthy. “We are not against businesspeople,” he said. “We need businesspeople, and their investments, to create jobs for our people and get our economy moving again.”
As mayor of Mexico City from 2000 until last year, Lopez Obrador instituted a variety of public works programs and subsidies for the poor. Most residents saw him as a competent and compassionate administrator of an overpopulated megalopolis beset by social ills: He left office with an 84% approval rating in the city, according to one poll.
But Calderon, once significantly behind, has had considerable success playing on the fears of the wealthy -- and the anxieties of many in the middle class. He has used a series of ads attacking Lopez Obrador to propel himself forward in several recent polls.
“Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico,” intoned one of the ads, comparing him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled populist and the bete noire of Latin American conservatives. Another ad argues, with considerable exaggeration, that Lopez Obrador bankrupted Mexico City with expensive public works projects.
It isn’t hard to find executives, Lomas de Chapultepec homemakers and students at elite colleges here who repeat those arguments. A few speak of the candidate and his supporters using the colorful and insulting vocabulary with which the rich talk about the city’s poor majority.
In the parlance of the city’s “educated society,” Lopez Obrador and his followers are nacos, a slur meaning “rube” or “uncultured.”
“Only the nacos, the people who are dying of hunger, will vote for him, just so they can get everything for free, instead of working to make this country better,” a man who identified himself as Andres Lavoisere wrote on a Mexican blog recently.
The slang word turns up in thousands of Web postings about Lopez Obrador, along with a slew of conspiracy theories that “prove” he is the candidate of social anarchy and collapse.
One widely circulated e-mail argues that leaders with Lopez in their names have always brought bad fortune to Mexico. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna lost Texas and California in the 19th century. Jose Lopez Portillo presided over a period of hyperinflation in the 1980s and nationalized the banking system.
“Lopez Obrador closes this circle of evil,” the e-mail warns. He is “a lying oddball, corrupt and a manipulator of the ignorance and the hope of Mexico’s poor.”
Carlos Zavala Rocha, a 67-year-old owner of a recording company, recently received an anti-Lopez Obrador joke in his e-mail, a fictional dialogue between two children on the playground of a Mexico City prep school.
“Hey, there’s good news,” the first child says. “This man called Lopez Obrador is ahead in the polls.”
“How is that good news?” his friend asks.
“Because my papa says that if that man wins, we’re moving to Miami!”
The contention that a Lopez Obrador victory would eventually bring an exodus of the rich and their money from Mexico is an article of faith among many here.
“We’ve lived through out-of-control inflation and devaluation of our currency, and we don’t want to go through that again,” Zavala Rocha said. “People with money are going to take their money out of Mexico.”
Among the very top members of Mexico’s business elite, the mood isn’t quite so grim.
Lorenzo Zambrano, president and chief executive of the cement company Cemex, recently told The Times that Lopez Obrador probably would take steps to increase government intervention in the economy if he became president.
“He would be a throwback to what we had ... 20 years ago,” Zambrano said. “To go back 20 years is not a process I look forward to.”
Still, Zambrano said he believed that big business could work with such a government. “Lopez Obrador will be a challenge if he becomes president, but it won’t be a tragedy,” he said.
Some executives, such as telecommunications mogul Carlos Slim, are hedging their bets. Slim, the world’s third-richest man, gave the maximum campaign contributions of nearly $94,000 to Lopez Obrador and each of the leading candidates.
Many executives decline to speak about Lopez Obrador on the record. In a rare moment of candor, Claudio X. Gonzalez, chairman and CEO of Kimberly-Clark de Mexico and one of the nation’s most influential businessmen, lashed out at the candidate last year. He called Lopez Obrador a “retrograde and dinosaur-like” leftist who would upend the nation’s economic stability.
Some critics charge that Lopez Obrador has deliberately stoked the country’s class divisions.
When the anti-crime group Mexico United organized a massive demonstration last year to protest a wave of kidnappings, then-Mayor Lopez Obrador said the group was directed by pirrurris (rough translation: filthy rich people) with a hidden agenda to destabilize his government.
“He polarizes and scares people in order to win votes,” said Maria Elena Morera Galindo, the group’s director. “What he says doesn’t scare me, but it does sadden me, because we’re all Mexicans.”
Still, she hopes to work with Lopez Obrador if he’s elected president: This month, he signed a pledge to work toward the group’s goals.
Lopez Obrador’s efforts to calm the markets and woo corporate support have taken place in private, behind-the-scenes meetings. Last year, he sent letters to several hundred of Mexico’s top executives outlining his economic strategy. He assured them that if he became president, he would continue the fiscal and monetary discipline that has lowered inflation and interest rates.
On the campaign trail, Lopez Obrador repeatedly takes up the theme of economic injustice. His followers affectionately call him El Peje, a nickname derived from the name of a tropical fish.
At a recent Lopez Obrador campaign stop in the heavily indigenous state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, his supporters raised a banner that declared: “We’re Indians, but we’re not fools any longer.” The newspaper El Universal reported that Lopez Obrador told the crowd that he was sure they would not vote for Calderon because to do so was to become a ladino, or someone who rejects his Indian roots.
Analysts here say that Lopez Obrador’s support extends beyond the poor. He has the support of the intelligentsia, pollster Dan Lund said. One is writer Elena Poniatowska, who recently appeared in a televised ad in support of the candidate.
Garcia, the Lomas de Chapultepec homemaker, said she was trying to step across the class divide to persuade the people who work for her to vote for Calderon.
“I try to talk to my gardener, to the two girls who work for me, the guy who takes out the trash,” she said.
Her workers love Lopez Obrador for the subsidies he gave to Mexico City seniors, she said.
“They think that the money he gave to the grandmothers came out of his own pocket. I tell them it comes from their taxes.... But they just don’t understand.”
Times staff writer Marla Dickerson contributed to this report.