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In Mexico, voters are wooed with gift cards, washing machines and cheap tortillas

In Mexico, voters are wooed with gift cards, washing machines and cheap tortillas
Sophia Cruz, left, who owns a corner store called Tortilleria Mexico in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, has refused to lower prices for her tortillas. She's lost business to others that receive assistance from a local political candidate in exchange for free advertising. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

It’s election season in Mexico, which means the high jinks have begun.

Vote-buying, illegal spending and other forms of cheating are so common here that major political parties sometimes reference the phenomenon in their slogans (“Take what the others give, but vote National Action Party!”). Past candidates have been caught wooing voters with handouts of gift cards, eyeglasses, building supplies and even washing machines.

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This year, in a rough-and-tumble suburb of Mexico City, it’s all about tortillas.

In Nezahualcoyotl, a working-class city of 1 million, several dozen tortillerias associated with a left-leaning political party have been selling corn tortillas for half the normal price. On the weekends, many have been selling nearly 4 1/2 pounds of tortillas for the price of about 2 pounds — in exchange for the buyer’s name and contact information.

The rest of the city’s tortilla makers are incensed. They say the party is trying to illegally win over voters and hurting their business at the same time.

“It’s impossible for us to compete with this situation,” complained Sergio Jarquin Muñoz, a hearty man who owns three tortillerias in “Neza,” as Nezahualcoyotl is known.

It was a cool weekday morning at Jarquin’s small tortilla factory, and his workers were pulling perfect disks off a silver conveyor belt. “It’s not fair,” he said, passing a hunk of masa, or corn dough, between his hands like worry beads. He said declining profits have already forced him to let go three employees.

In recent months, Jarquin and other tortilleria owners have spoken out about what they see as unfair competition, organizing protests and toting signs that warn: “Nezahualcoyotl’s tortilla industry is at risk of bankruptcy!”

<i>Tortillerias</i> such as this one in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, receive assistance from a foundation associated with a local political candidate, Armando Soto, that enables them to lower their prices.
Tortillerias such as this one in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, receive assistance from a foundation associated with a local political candidate, Armando Soto, that enables them to lower their prices. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

The man Jarquin blames for it all is Armando Soto, a congressman from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, who is running for mayor of Neza in July 1 elections. It’s a crowded ballot; voters will also choose new members of Congress as well as a new president.

Soto’s name and picture are featured on large banners hanging outside some of the shops offering discount tortillas, along with the phrase: “2018 — let’s do it better.” The shops are painted yellow and black — PRD colors — and bear the party’s logo of a rising sun.

Soto insists he is not paying the stores to sell cheaper tortillas and advertise on his behalf. He said he would never try to win over voters with something as basic as a tortilla.

“You don’t play with hunger,” he said.

But the owner of the stores selling discount tortillas, Roberto Samano, said a foundation Soto helped create has been providing the tortillerias with support, including upgrading and maintaining equipment. Samano said he is able to offer such cheap prices because he is getting help, because he buys ingredients in bulk and because he is content making profits of centavos, instead of pesos, on every 2 pounds of tortillas he sells.

“This has always been a project aimed at helping people who have less,” he said.

Whether or not the the tortilla program is illegal all comes down to whether the discount tortillerias are designed to influence voters on Soto’s behalf.

Under Mexican election law, political parties and politicians are allowed to give voters gifts as long as the gift is not meant to influence their votes. The cost of such gifts must be reported to election authorities and can’t exceed campaign spending limits.

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Polling done by University of Texas professor Kenneth Greene, who researches Mexican elections, found that 21% of Mexicans were approached with an offer to buy their vote in the 2012 presidential election.

“I think the practice is increasing,” he said.

Greene said the pressure to hand out things to voters often comes from the ground up, in part because voters are disappointed with elected officials’ performance in office.

“Nobody has been able to seriously deliver,” he said, so “people have been asking for stuff. People say: ‘What are you gonna give me?’ ”

The government has created several mechanisms to check vote-buying and other illegal election tactics, even creating a special prosecutor for electoral crimes. But violations of those rules are usually punished with fines and in the past have not been considered grounds for annulling elections.

International observers are worried about the possibility of vote-buying and other fraud in the highly contested presidential election, in which Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is going up against several opposition parties, as well as at least three independent candidates. Peña Nieto fired the electoral prosecutor last fall after he spoke out about an ongoing bribery investigation related to the PRI.

<i>Tortilleria</i> owner Sophia Cruz, left, has refused to take assistance from a local political candidate in exchange for free advertising.
Tortilleria owner Sophia Cruz, left, has refused to take assistance from a local political candidate in exchange for free advertising. (Kate Linthicum / Los Angeles Times)

Back in Neza, tortilla makers say they don’t care whether the tortilla program is legal, they just want it to stop.

“They’re playing dirty,” said Sophia Cruz, who owns a corner store called Tortilleria Mexico. She has refused to lower prices for her airy, delicate tortillas, which are famous in these parts. On market days such as today, when street vendors sell their wares on her street, she used to have a line down the block. Now customers come only every few minutes.

It was already a hard time for tortilla makers thanks to hikes in gas and electricity prices, she said. They’ve also had to compete with the changing diets of Mexicans, who are increasingly choosing foods such as pizza, hamburgers and sushi.

While the going rate for tortillas is about 75 cents for about 2 pounds, the discounted stores have been selling them for as little as 37 cents instead.

That may not sound like a huge cost difference to some, but it is to many in Mexico, where the minimum wage is about $4.70 a day.

Customer Cyntia Carina Hernandez Contas, 29, said she had tried the discounted tortillas. She wasn’t turned off by the political connections — she’s used to parties trying to woo her with giveaways — but she didn’t like the taste. She said she has remained loyal to Cruz’s tortillas even if they cost twice as much.

“They’re thinner than the others,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

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