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Mexico City mayor accuses political leaders of plot

MEXICO CITY—Facing possible criminal charges, leftist Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stepped up his presidential campaign Wednesday, charging that the government, ex-president Carlos Salinas and top politicians are in cahoots to put him jail.

The popular mayor, considered the leading candidate to replace President Vicente Fox in balloting next year, said Fox, Salinas and other politicians have long been trying to discredit him, releasing suspicious videos and pushing for Congress to lift his immunity from prosecution.

The charges aren't new. But the vehemence of Lopez Obrador's denunciations and the forum he chose to make them—a rare appearance before Mexico City's foreign press corps—are a sure sign that the embattled mayor intends to mount a political brawl for the presidency.

"The allegations against me are 90 percent political because I'm constantly ahead in the polls," Lopez Obrador said. "There's a network of players who fabricate charges and twist the law to disable me from politics. It's a strike against democracy and freedom."

Mexico's presidential campaign is already well under way, even though candidates won't be officially selected until the fall. Lopez Obrador is considered the most likely standard bearer of the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, by its Spanish-language initials.

The leading candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until it was unseated by Fox in 2000, is likely to be party leader Roberto Madrazo.

The situation is more confusing in Fox's party, the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, where no clear candidate has emerged. Fox, by law, can't seek re-election.

As mayor of one of the world's largest cities, with some 19 million people, Lopez Obrador has seen his star rise, especially among the poor, by improving public works and housing and constructing expensive highway renovation projects.

The news media here call him a populist and often compare him to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez because of his opposition to U.S.-influenced financial policies.

"It's very simplistic to use the word populist because every country has its own reality. Here, they call you populist when you help the poor," the mayor said. "The world economy has been dictated by international financial organizations and it hasn't worked."

In the past weeks, the mayor has intensified his yet-unofficial candidacy. He's been stumping the nation after writing a book, "Change of Course," which explains his policies should he become president. He also has summoned street protests and has printed thousands of fliers against an impending congressional vote that could strip him of political immunity. If so, he could be charged and jailed for disobeying the law, preventing a presidential run.

If he has to, the mayor said, he'll call on followers to stage more "peaceful" protests, campaign from behind bars and take his case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The legal case against Lopez Obrador revolves around whether the mayor disobeyed a court order to halt building a road that improved access to a hospital. Lopez

Obrador said he only widened part of the road and stopped when the court order came. He could only be charged, however, if Congress lifts the legal immunity he enjoys, as all Mexican public officials do.

The mayor and the federal prosecutor have until Friday to present mounds of documents to a commission made up of four lawmakers who'll recommend a course of action to the 500-member Chamber of Deputies.

If they agree to lift his immunity, the prosecutor could formally charge him, making him ineligible to run for the presidency.

Observers expect a decision in less than a month. Local news organizations have said the PRI and PAN members have already agreed to rule against the mayor.

The PRI has congressional majority with 222 seats, while the PAN holds 151 seats and the mayor's PRD, 95.

The campaign against the mayor began last year when videotapes were released showing Argentine-born businessman Carlos Ahumada, now jailed for fraud, giving wads of money to two officials from Lopez Obrador's administration. The two officials are now in prison.

Lopez Obrador blamed Salinas for setting up the videos. "Former president Salinas is active in Mexican politics, not necessarily for the better, and has a network of supporters," the mayor said.

Salinas, who ruled from 1988 to 1994, is one of Mexico's most reviled politicians. He left Mexico for four years after his presidency ended and has been accused of leaving the country in economic ruins.

Fox and Lopez Obrador also have been openly feuding, with Fox increasingly warning against politicians acting like "messiahs" with "simple solutions." Lopez Obrador has countered by accusing Fox of ordering his attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, to manufacture a criminal case against Lopez Obrador.

"There's no change under Fox," Lopez Obrador said. "We've had zero economic growth and we have the same practices of the past," a reference to allegations of political corruption that were the hallmarks of the PRI's 71 years in power.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Lopez Obrador

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