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Tensions high as panel weighs charges against Mexico City mayor

MEXICO CITY—With protesters in the streets and political tension rising, a congressional committee began deliberating Tuesday whether there's enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leading candidate to become Mexico's next president in 2006.

If the four-member committee decides that Lopez Obrador, the country's most popular politician, should be charged for violating a court order to stop building an access road to a hospital, he could be barred from seeking the presidency. A decision was expected by Wednesday, but the committee announced late Tuesday that it was suspending the session until Friday.

Mexicans are glued to radio and television sets. The mayor's supporters have been staging protests, and there are fears that mayhem may break out if he's charged. During Holy Week, Lopez Obrador partisans from around Mexico blanketed Mexico City with posters depicting him as a crucified Christlike figure, and denounced the move to strip him of his immunity from prosecution. On Tuesday, supporters unrolled a 4,265-foot scroll with thousands of signatures in his favor.

"Such is the expectation this has generated that not even a tree leaf moves in this country," read an editorial Tuesday in the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma. "There's no dinner, business or friendly meeting in which the subject isn't divisive."

The deliberations come after months of political maneuvering over who'll succeed President Vicente Fox, the first president in 71 years who isn't a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known in its Spanish initials as the PRI. Mexican presidents have only one term in office.

PRI leaders desperately want to recapture the presidency, and their leading candidate is the party's national leader, Roberto Madrazo. Fox's conservative party, the National Action Party, or PAN, wants to hold on to the job and is likely to nominate Interior Minister Santiago Creel.

Polls consistently show that neither man would beat Lopez Obrador, a member of the left-leaning Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD.

That makes the decision to strip him of immunity and bar him from running a major source of tension, particularly since the possible criminal charge stems from a seemingly minor court dispute over an access road to a hospital and whether the mayor obeyed a court order to stop the road's construction.

The mayor alleges that the Fox administration, in cahoots with the PRI, conjured up whimsical charges to keep him from the race.

Fox canceled plans to travel outside the capital Tuesday, and security was beefed up around the presidential residence, Los Pinos.

The odds are against Lopez Obrador in the committee, where his party has just one vote. Two PRI members and one PAN member also are on the committee.

If the committee splits 2-2 on the issue, the process ends. But if the vote is 3-1 either way, the matter will be referred to the 500-member Congress, where the PRD holds only 95 votes, compared with 222 for the PRI and 151 for the PAN.

Horacio Duarte, head of the congressional committee and the only member affiliated with the mayor's PRD party, said the committee decided late Tuesday to suspend talks.

The motion to postpone the session was placed by Francisco Frias Castro, one of the PRI members, who said there wasn't enough time to reach a "fair decision in a professional way."

Federal Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha says he'll charge the mayor regardless of the outcome, a step he could take if Lopez Obrador's party nominates him to run for president later this year. Lopez Obrador would be required to leave the mayor's office then, and become a private citizen.

The mayor has promised massive "peaceful" street protests and his supporters were gathering Tuesday afternoon as the committee began reviewing evidence. At issue is whether he violated a March 14, 2001, court order requiring the city to stop building an access road across property it had seized previously from a private owner.

The mayor says he ordered the construction stopped, but the landowner complained several months after the order that city equipment was still on his land. The road was never completed. It remains unpaved and strewn with trash, rocks and piles of dirt.

The PAN appears ready to act against the mayor. Monday afternoon, Fox, Creel, PAN national leader Manuel Espino and congressional coordinators met to discuss the issue. It isn't known what was said.

First lady Martha Sahagun—broadly thought to harbor presidential ambitions, though she's denied it—met separately with PAN leaders and told them she favored "the strict application of the law," interpreted as wanting the mayor out.

The PRI appears divided, with some party leaders thinking that a move against Lopez Obrador will call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election.

"The upcoming vote has split the party in two. Both sides feel very strongly on this matter and it's become a very delicate issue within party circles," said Carlos Jimenez Macias, a spokesman for the party in the Congress.

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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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-MAYOR

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