La Loteria Mas Grande

The battle for presidential succesion in Mexico is never easy. But it's getting weirder and weirder


What more do you want, Vicente? Don’t you see where your love for that woman has brought you? Don’t you see that it’s not just about your life, but the welfare of the country? . . . Please, Vicente. Reflect!

e-mail message by José Ramón Saenz Andrade, posted on the website of El Universal, July 5, 2004

Years ago the king of television entertainment in Mexico was a variety show host named Raúl Velasco, a prim-looking man with balding hair, wire-rim glasses, and a goofy grin. Week after week, year after year, he would chat up the starlets and good-looking galanes, the leading men on telenovelas. He would applaud the ranchero singers, the norteño musicians, and even, from time to time, Plácido Domingo. And before every commercial break he would peer into the camera and announce: “Y aún hay más!” “And there’s even more to come!”

Raúl Velasco and his treacly show are long gone, replaced by a plague of Big Brother and Star Search clones. But his spirit lingers on. Whenever I sit down to try to unravel the agonizingly long battle of Mexico’s presidential succession—for which Big Brother has become a handy metaphor, by the way—I feel his spirit hovering above the keyboard. Like Mexicans themselves, I know that as soon as I think I’ve got the basic plot and characters sorted out—Y aún hay más—another twist is about to occur.

If you think the U.S. electoral season is arduous and acrimonious, consider Mexico, where voters won’t go to the polls until July 2006, but an all-out free-for all is already raging. Power is split among the three main parties, the (PAN) National Action Party of President Vicente Fox, the (PRI) Institutional Revolutionary Party, the ruling party of Mexico for most of the 20th century, and the (PRD) Party of the Democratic Revolution, which has dominated Mexico City politics in recent years. Internal divisions and financial scandals beset each of the parties. Minor parties and independent candidates wait to pounce. The First Lady has presidential ambitions; the mayor of Mexico City has presidential ambitions; and the pundits and the press have declared that the man who actually holds the office seems to have lost his presidential way. “The calendar says President Vicente Fox is halfway through his six-year term,” wrote Tim Weiner of The New York Times in November 2003. “But the handwriting on the wall says that it is all but over and that his legacy is likely to be one of unfulfilled pledges and empty promises.”

Fox’s situation became even more problematic earlier this month when his all-in-one chief of staff/speechwriter/press spokesman resigned, while issuing an explosive critique of the president and his wife—”la Señora Marta.” It was akin to Karl Rove, Andrew Card, and Scott McClellan turning against President George W. Bush because Laura was putting on Evita Perón airs.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Vamos por partes, as the saying goes. One step at a time, beginning with the pareja presidencial, “the presidential couple,” who came to power in a historic election that ended the 71-year reign of the PRI.

We like our stories simple. And so the story told on July 2, 2000, was that Mexico had elected an opposition candidate and overthrown a corrupt political system. The agent of this new, nonviolent revolution was Vicente Fox. With his six-foot-five-inch frame, booming voice made for radio, and his penchant for jeans and boots, the telegenic governor of Guanajuato and former Coca-Cola executive had successfully billed himself as the “candidate for change,” attracting the support of influential businessmen, políticos, and academics from outside the PAN. Even voters who normally would not think of voting for a candidate of the conservative PAN, flocked to Fox. Among them was a friend of mine, a confirmed atheist who was wary of the candidate’s ties to the Monterrey business elite and to the overly mocho (ultra-conservative Catholic) tendencies of the woman who was always at his side, Fox’s press secretary and campaign manager, Marta Sahagún. “But what else can you do?” he mused, explaining his vote. “We have to change.” He was 50 years old and all his life there had never been a president from a party other than the PRI.

As all politicians do, Fox had promised the impossible. He would resolve the conflict in Chiapas “in 15 minutes”; the economy would grow by 7 percent a year; and the rule of law would replace the reign of impunity in Mexican society once and for all. It didn’t take long to figure out that the administration was doomed by the unbearable burden of overly high expectations. Moreover, Fox had to deal with an increasingly cantankerous Congress, as well as dissent from his own party. But as time wore on it became obvious that something else was also going on. Fox was much better at (and more interested in) campaigning than in the details of the job. His pluralistic cabinet seemed to buckle from under him, its members going their own way.

Among those who appeared to be pursuing their own agenda was his former press secretary, Marta Sahagún. Fox and Sahagún married in July 2001. Soon after, Marta founded a new charity, Vamos México (Let’s Go Mexico), which she launched with much fanfare: a fabulous lobster dinner and concert by Elton John at Mexico City’s Chapúltepec Castle. As the First Lady barnstormed the country dispensing charity, a ubiquitous media presence, the comparisons with Evita Perón were inevitable—comparisons that she did not necessarily find disagreeable. After an Argentine journalist published an unflattering unauthorized biography, La Jefa, Martita appeared on a popular morning television show, El Mañanero, to defend herself. The host, a green haired, red-nosed clown named Brozo, sang her a song in his deep, gruff voice: “Don’t Cry for Me, Martita!” Meanwhile, Vamos México grew handsomely, raking in contributions to the tune of $1 million a month—stiff competition for other Mexican nonprofits seeking scarce philanthropic resources. Marta’s new venture was acquiring the distinct whiff of a campaign war chest.

The rivers of Tabasco, the oil-rich state on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, are home to a strange creature called the pejelagarto that has the head of an alligator and the body of a fish. A regional delicacy, it’s served either grilled or pickled in ceviche. The Pejelagarto, or El Peje, is also a nickname of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, whose official title is “El Jefe del Gobierno,” the head of the Federal District. An activist/politician fromTabasco, he had twice organized marches to Mexico City to protest electoral fraud and championed the cause of campesinos and fishermen who blockaded oil wells in response to decades of environmental degradation at the hands of PEMEX, the state-owned oil monopoly. When the government sent in the troops to break up the blockade, images of López Obrador—battered, his shirt bloodied—raced across the wires. After serving as president of the PRD, in 2000 he ran for mayor of one of the most vibrant and conflictive cities on the planet. Once in office, he hit the ground running, displaying a combination of energy, discipline, and scrupulous attention to the media oddly reminiscent of the man he likes to call “El Inombrable”—”The Unmentionable One”—former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has recently returned to public life after a long period of self-imposed exile.

Among his first items of business was a 15 percent cut in bureaucrats’ salaries, including his own, and the institution of daily 6:30 a.m. press conferences. He re-christened the much-maligned capital “the city of hope,” words that now appear under the city shield. Among the programs he initiated to benefit the city’s poor and working class were a $60 monthly stipend for senior citizens, credits for single mothers and handicapped citizens; the construction of new high schools, and the first public university in more than 20 years. Among his overtures to the city’s middle and upper classes was a highway construction program. Enlisting the support of Telmex magnate Carlos Slim, the city began restoring the Centro Histórico. Slim was also among the businessmen who picked up the $4.3 million tab for Rudy Giuliani’s consulting firm, which was hired to help combat crime.

That Giuliani’s zero-tolerance policy might not apply to a city where a vast number of poor people resort to the informal economy simply because it is the only economy to which they have access, was beside the point. The idea was to do something. Get it done. And after the July 2003 mid-term elections, it looked like it was going to be a lot easier to get things done. The mayor’s party swept the city. He now had a majority of seats in the city assembly, and the contrast with Fox was striking. The PAN had lost ground, making it increasingly unlikely that the president would be able to deliver on pending legislative reform. “El Peje Sweeps, Chente Falls” read the headline of a Mexico City tabloid the day after the election.

López Obrador, an all-but-declared candidate for president in 2006, led the public opinion polls; his approval ratings for his performance in Mexico City were as high as 80 percent. “Mexico’s rising political star,” intoned The Economist, “a man whose administration appears to be a model of parsimony.” There’s an old Russian proverb that’s useful in situations like this: It shouldn’t get better. Watch out. Your luck is about to change.

At 7:19 on the morning of March 3, millions of Mexicans were watching El Mañanero when Brozo welcomed his guest, a Mexico City deputy from the PAN named Federico Doring who had brought along something he thought Brozo and his viewers might find interesting: a videotape. “A present for my saint’s day,” Doring said, as he handed it to the clown, who in turn handed it over to an assistant to broadcast. The tape showed a man, whose face had been digitally disguised with a moving dot, giving stacks of dollar bills to a local PRD leader named Rene Bejarano, who stuffed them into his briefcase. When the briefcase was filled to the brim, he then appeared to stuff them into his pockets. “Impresionante!” roared the clown. “Impressive!”

As it happened, Bejarano was in another Televisa studio that morning participating in a round table about corruption and how to fight it. On March 1, an evening newscast had broadcast a video of the city’s finance secretary, Gustavo Ponce, chomping on a cigar and playing blackjack at the VIP Room at the Hotel Bellagio in Las Vegas. (Apparently he was a well-known and valued patron at the gaming tables, according to information from a U.S. Treasury report referred to in the broadcast.) Brozo picked up the phone and invited Bejarano onto the set, where he played Doring’s tape. Once again, millions watched. “This is going to be the worst day of your life,” he angrily told Bejarano, a chubby cheeked, middle-aged man who had worked his way up the ladder in city politics after co-opting urban housing movements that emerged after the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. “I believe so,” said Bejarano. The money was a contribution, he tried to explain. “Don’t shit with me,” replied Brozo.

Bejarano immediately identified the man with behind the face-disguising dot: Carlos Ahumada, an Argentine-born businessman blessed with galán good looks and a capacity to make a lot of friends in high places. He owned two soccer teams, a newspaper (El Independiente, “The Journalism that Mexico Needs,”), and a construction conglomerate that had benefited handsomely from city contracts. He had been romantically linked with former PRD mayor Rosario Robles, but had been ecumenical in pursuing contacts and lavishing his largesse on members of all political parties. Among them was a PANista borough chief, who had been forced to resign when he was arrested with a shipment of illegal arms after returning from Laredo on a plane owned by Carlos Ahumada.

López Obrador fired his finance secretary the morning after the first video was shown. At some point—no one knows when—Gustavo Ponce deleted his computer files and then disappeared. City prosecutors divulged that they were already investigating Ahumada for $3 million in fraudulent contracts, and now connected the dots to Ponce. Ahumada said city officials were extorting him, and then he too, disappeared, only to show up in Cuba several weeks later. He was quickly deported to Mexico, but not before starring in another series of videos: Cuban authorities had taped him while he was in their custody. They said they had hours of Ahumada tapes in which el argentino, as he was always described by the Mexican press, had named high-level Mexican officials who had participated in the orchestration of the video scandals. The Cuban government broadcast several minutes in which Ahumada said that he never wanted to have the Ponce, Bejarano, et al tapes made public but “they” insisted it had to be done.

López Obrador may not have been implicated in the scandals, but as someone who had made the fight against corruption the linchpin of his career, he had the most to lose. After his defeat in the 1994 race for Tabasco governor, for example, he had poured through boxes of original documents to prove that his PRI opponent had spent $70 million—more than Bill Clinton spent on his first presidential campaign—in a state with fewer than 500,000 registered voters. Now he insisted that the video scandals were part of a plot against him, aimed at the 2006 elections, and the policy alternatives that he represented. But that’s not what people wanted to hear; they were hoping for something a little more contrite. The mayor’s standing in the polls plummeted. Then suddenly there appeared to be signs of life to the plot theory: A powerful PANista senator said that he had seen the videos several times before they were broadcast. Documents leaked from the Mexico City office of the national security agency also began to support at least some of the mayor’s thesis. And then Ahumada showed up in Cuba, grousing about the bum deal he had gotten from unidentified top Mexican officials—the “they” who had promised him something in exchange for his tapes.

And so the video scandals died down, but—y aún hay más. There was more to take their place. The mayor’s administration became embroiled in a disputed land deal that was the subject of a federal investigation that was less illustrative of illegal deeds (there are far more pressing ones to investigate, such as the recent murder of a respected Tijuana journalist) than the sorry state of the relationship between the federal government and the Federal District. The Organized Crime Unit of the federal attorney general’s office decided to give its highest priority to a dispute about expropriated property on the outskirts of Mexico City. The Attorney General asked Congress to strip the mayor of his immunity so that he could be tried for failing to immediately comply with a court order to stop the construction of a hospital access road on a piece of property known as El Encino, “The Oak Tree.”

In a similar case, the mayor had prevailed (and curiously, the would-be owner, who had relied on forged documents, also fled to Cuba. He too, was booted off the island.) But the El Encino case was not going to go away. Fox has described it as “a headfirst assault on corruption and impunity.” Meanwhile, the Mayor has argued that “It’s a badge of pride that those who deceived the people of Mexico have accused me; that those who offer change and lie, those who have allied themselves with the most sinister characters of public life from the past and maintain the same politics as always.” It’s the same message that appears on the back
f a bizarre 16-page comic book, printed and distributed by the city, that describes a heroic mayor battling the forces of evil—in the form of snakes and sharks. And so it goes.

Back in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, the pressure was increasing on the presidential couple. Marta’s much rumored, but never openly discussed presidential candidacy had caused further strains and departures in the cabinet. Moreover, Vamos México was now being investigated by Congress. In January a meticulously reported Financial Times article described missing or incomplete financial information, use of presidential resources, and excessive overhead costs. It appeared that in its first 15 months of existence Vamos México had actually distributed to charities less than a third of the funds it had received and had spent 34 percent on overhead. Less than 10 percent of the funds raised at the fabulous Elton John concert and dinner had actually been distributed to charity. “Organizers spent three times as much on drinks, souvenirs and other trappings for the sumptuous event,” reported Sara Silver of the Financial Times. Now Congress was not only investigating Vamos México, but it had also extended the investigation to include the National Lottery, whose proceeds are supposed to go to a variety of worthy causes. There was evidence of a triangular trade in funds between the National Lottery, Vamos México, and several private charities favored by the First Lady.

On July 5 (the day after the PAN did poorly in gubernatorial elections) President Vicente Fox’s chief of staff released an extraordinary document that proves that even in an era of sex, lies, and video scandals you should never discount the power of the printed word—3,228 words to be exact. Alfonso Durazo, who was also Fox’s press chief and chief scriptwriter, resigned. A former PRIista, he was one of the last of the pluralistic group that had joined Fox in 2000 to carry out the democratic transition. Instead of the usual euphemisms about “personal reasons” and “pursuing other interests,” he announced his departure with a 19-page letter aimed at the political ambitions of the woman whom Fox refers to as “la Señora Marta.”

“For historical reasons,” Durazo wrote, “Mexicans have no tolerance for dynastic tendencies.” But increasingly, the “issue of presidential succession is operating more under the logic of the old regime than that of a government of transition. That explains many of the tensions the country is going through, and which at times threaten to explode.” The First Lady was “flirting” with a run for the presidency and the president was no longer a disinterested referee. Martita’s “eventual presidential aspirations may have political possibilities, but they have no ethical possibility.”

The president’s web site posted a terse statement indicating that the president did not share Durazo’s reasoning. Then, while traveling to Brazil, Fox told reporters on the plane that “La Señora Marta and the President of the Republic are very clear about how long we’re going to serve the people of Mexico and that’s until 2006.” After that it was back to the ranch to ride horses, write books, and be with their children. Maybe. But he had said that before. The press wanted more. They wanted to hear it from Marta. And as I write this, they are still waiting.

Meanwhile, later this summer the Congress is expected to make a decision on whether to strip Andrés Manuel López Obrador of his immunity. His fate may be in the hands of the PRI. In the past two years the PRI has been quietly regaining its strength under the presidency of Roberto Madrazo—the mayor’s old nemesis from Tabasco, the man who spent millions to become governor in 1994. The mayor will not negotiate with Roberto Madrazo. The consensus among legal scholars is that no matter what Congress does, it’s likely that the clock will run out on López Obrador, ending his presidential possibilities. And whatever Congress decides to do, the Attorney General will still be waiting for him.

As for Carlos Ahumada (“El Argentino”) he’s in a Mexico City prison facing fraud charges. René Bejarano (the man with the overstuffed briefcase) stepped down from his party post. Several PRD leaders caught up in the video scandals were booted from the party. Gustavo Ponce (the former finance secretary) has not been heard from in public since his video was broadcast. On June 2, El Mañanero and Brozo went off the air. After the death of his wife and co-producer, Carolina, comic Victor Trujillo decided to end the show. “It’s a month today since Caro left,” he told his viewers on his last broadcast, “and I have found no other homage to her than to end this show. I can no longer be this clown.” And then, with his two daughters standing behind him, he removed the wig and his nose.

He’s expected to return to Televisa sometime next year with a new program. And as the saying goes, Y aún hay más.

Note: After the Observer went to press, Marta Sahagún de Fox declared that she would not run for president in 2006. “I am conscious of my responsibilities and also of the limits that are imposed by this moment in history,” she told reporters at Los Pinos. “This moment is propitious for big decisions. This is mine.”