In Mexico’s New Politics, Wealth May Be a Liability

Times Staff Writer

Mexico’s leading presidential candidate, the leftist former mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, lives in a 1,500-square-foot apartment in the heart of the city’s university village.

Conservative free-market candidate Felipe Calderon lives in a 2,900-square-foot home around the corner from Pizza Hut, Burger King and Blockbuster, neon-lighted landmarks in Mexico’s new global economy.

Roberto Madrazo, candidate of the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, has a 14,000-square-foot home on a 3.6-acre estate overlooking the capital.

All three men have spent their lives in public service, moving between elected office and political party jobs. The annual income for each man barely cracks six figures.

But according to his financial statements, Madrazo has five houses, three 2,800-square-foot condominiums, a Porsche, a BMW, a Ford Expedition, $500,000 in gold and cash and has lent people $250,000 more.

He has a lease-option on a $1-million-plus Miami condo, but everything else is his -- no mortgages, no monthly payments.

Many voters wonder: How the heck did Roberto Madrazo get so rich?

The answers shed little light on Madrazo’s financial acumen. But even asking the question says a lot about changes in Mexican politics that threaten to strand Madrazo and the former ruling party he represents.

Polls show Madrazo in third place, with negative ratings double those of his opponents. His campaign appearances draw hecklers. On the street, people roll their eyes at the mention of Madrazo and money. Newspapers speculate on whether he’ll be yanked before the July 2 election.

One longtime political historian thinks he knows why.

“Madrazo represents the traditional political class,” said Lorenzo Meyer, professor at the Center for International Studies at the College of Mexico.

“In the Mexican traditional political class, most live off politics, not for politics. In that sense, I would say Calderon and Lopez Obrador live for politics,” he said.

But, he added, Madrazo “never descended from the high ranks” in state or national politics. “Up there you live side by side with those who live off politics.”

Madrazo’s party -- known by its Spanish initials, PRI -- ruled the country for seven decades until its defeat in 2000 by President Vicente Fox and his National Action Party, or PAN. The PRI has more than $75 million in public campaign funds to spend trying to convince voters that it’s no longer the sticky-fingered party that in past years would rig elections and drain public coffers.

Madrazo, meanwhile, is stuck campaigning as the face of Mexico’s new leadership while saddled with many of the trappings of the old.

For example, here’s how his campaign explains how Madrazo amassed his holdings on a public servant’s pay: “His father had all the money in the world,” a spokesman said.

The father, Carlos Madrazo, also led a life of public service. He was the former governor of the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco and a PRI party president, two posts later held by his son. He was killed along with his wife in a 1969 plane crash when Roberto Madrazo was a teenager.

A big inheritance could explain how Madrazo was able to attend law school and buy his south Mexico City estate -- named Cave of the Turtles -- before he had turned 30. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

But columnist and political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo, like many others, said Madrazo probably was helped by his wealthy friends.

Early in his career, Madrazo worked as an advisor to Carlos Hank Gonzalez, who before his death in 2001 was a millionaire businessman, PRI political operative and close family friend.

Gonzalez was mayor of Mexico City in 1981 when he appointed Madrazo to a post equivalent to borough president for the southern suburb of Magdalena Contreras. Madrazo bought his large property in nearby San Andres Totoltepec shortly after.

“The whole world knows that Hank Gonzalez protected and helped Madrazo,” Crespo said.

It’s impossible to find Madrazo’s hillside residence from the address listed in his financial disclosures, Bugambilia 134. There’s no such street in San Andres Totoltepec.

“The street name was changed,” the campaign spokesman said.

So was the street number. The house is at 132 Xicalco. An official at a nearby school laughed when asked where Madrazo lived. “Everybody’s looking for it,” she said.

A wall with a steel gate hides all but a large grass parking lot. But it’s possible to see Madrazo’s property from satellite images on the Internet. The coordinates are 19 14' 22.79" N, 99 10' 16.50" W.

The home of Lopez Obrador, who was Mexico City’s mayor until stepping down last summer to run for president, is easier to find. His apartment is in an aging concrete building at the edge of Mexico’s sprawling National Autonomous University campus, behind the medical school, on Odontology Street.

In 2002, Lopez Obrador sold a nearby 968-square-foot apartment for $73,585 to move into his larger digs, explaining that he needed more room for his three sons, who are now 16, 20 and 24. He reported that his new apartment was worth about $103,000.

The widower drives a 2004 Nissan Platina sedan and owns three properties in Tabasco that he values at about $140,000. Random House last year paid him $45,000 in a book deal. He reported about $30,000 in savings and has no credit card debt.

Madrazo, 53, and Lopez Obrador, 52, took different paths as young men in the PRI, which analysts say partly accounts for their disparate financial holdings.

Lopez Obrador, whose father was a shopkeeper, spent much of the 1970s and ‘80s in the least profitable corners of the party organization, beginning as a director for indigenous affairs in Tabasco, his native state. He became the PRI’s state party president in 1983, before Madrazo. Two years later, he moved to Mexico City to work as a lawyer for a federal consumer rights group.

Lopez Obrador split from the PRI in 1988 to join the Democratic Revolution Party, leading several high-profile protests against the government in the years that followed.

He lost to Madrazo in Tabasco’s 1994 governor’s race and later accused his rival of spending $72 million on his campaign, about 60 times the legal limit, a charge investigated and dismissed by the PRI-run government and denied by Madrazo.

Calderon, 43, is seen as having the best chance of moving past Lopez Obrador. The PAN standard-bearer comes across as a regular guy on the stump. In his TV ads too: In one, Calderon wears a sweater and sits in front of a bookcase. He owns a 1993 VW Golf and a 2000 Ford Windstar minivan, the sort of fleet that reflects the aspirations of the lower-middle-class voters who Mexico City-based pollster Daniel Lund believes will decide the election.

Calderon’s house is worth about $380,000, he reported. It is one of six homes with a common yard on Condor Street, a tiny tract hidden behind a wall and gate. The neighborhood is affluent but not ostentatious, about what one might expect for a lawyer with a master’s degree from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The PAN candidate’s strategy is to share credit for his party’s accomplishments under Fox -- mainly economic stability -- while keeping his distance from Fox’s failure to get fiscal and energy reforms through the PRI-controlled Congress.

Unlike some presidents, Fox isn’t likely to be accused of taking away millions of dollars when he leaves office in December. Fox reported acquiring $100,000 in savings and $500,000 in stocks since his election in 2000.

Mexican voters these days won’t put up with the political plunder of the past, analysts say.

Lopez Obrador, the front-runner, “has great political force precisely because he doesn’t have great material wealth,” said Meyer, the political historian.

By contrast, Madrazo’s long ties to PRI leaders of the past make him suspect among voters, Meyer suggested. “It’s like having a tribe of cannibals,” he said, “with one of them saying, ‘I was always really a vegetarian.’ ”


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