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Dispute over small road at the heart of a big political issue in Mexico

MEXICO CITY—If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, there's probably no better example than the small pathway that abruptly ends a few feet short of linking Mexico City's ABC Hospital with nearby highways.

The road is unpaved and unfinished, and some motorists, mistaking it for a shortcut to a nearby toll road, slam on their brakes when they find it blocked with piles of dirt, garbage and rocks.

But the road looms as large as a 16-lane superhighway in Mexico's political landscape as the country contemplates who's likely to emerge victorious in next year's presidential election.

Mexico's attorney general and a congressional committee are considering claims that Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador violated Mexican law by failing to stop work on the roadway in response to a court order. While the alleged transgression seems minor, criminal charges in the matter wouldn't be: If charged, Lopez Obrador, the front-runner to replace President Vicente Fox, would be barred from running for office.

Soon, Mexico's Congress could strip him of immunity from criminal prosecution, which public servants enjoy here to prevent them from being plagued with frivolous lawsuits. Regardless of what Congress decides, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha says he will charge the mayor with contempt of court.

"It's a minor case but has huge consequences for democracy," said Jaime Cardenas Garcia, a law professor at Mexico City's National Autonomous University.

How a small road became a huge issue says much about politics here nearly six years after the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost the presidency for the first time in seven decades. Many believe the outcome will say much about whether Mexico has moved very far along the road toward true democratic elections after 70 years of one-party rule.

Lopez Obrador, a member of the left-leaning Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD, insists the controversy is a conspiracy between the PRI and Fox's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, to keep him from running. Polls show 70 percent of Mexicans agree the case is political.

The details of the controversy are difficult to sort out. Mexico has a long history of land disputes, dating back to the 1910 revolution that gave farmers communal lands they had previously worked for nothing. Property records are often inaccurate.

What seems clear is this: Mexico City's real estate and construction agency, Servimet, sold 16 acres of land in 1993 to ABC, whose formal name, the American British Cowdray Hospital, bespeaks its history as a private health care facility that once served primarily the American and British communities here.

The new facility was intended to bring medical care to shanty towns in the Santa Fe area of northwestern Mexico City and was financed with $44.5 million in loans from the World Bank and the InterAmerican Development Bank. The city agreed to build access roads to the new hospital. The hospital construction began in 1998.

The trouble began when the city tried to buy land for the access roads, including three acres south of the hospital in an area known as El Encino.

The owner of the Encino land, Federico Escobedo Garduno, who owns a development company, Promotora Internacional Santa Fe, couldn't be found for interviews, and his lawyer, Fernando Espejel Cisneros, has an unlisted phone number and couldn't be reached for comment.

But Lopez Obrador's mayoral predecessor, Rosario Robles, says Escobedo wanted too much money. "We negotiated with the owner to buy this land, but he wanted to sell it as if it were the price of Mexico City," Robles said.

When no deal was reached, the city filed the required paperwork on Nov. 10, 2000, to seize the land. "He wanted to take advantage of the situation, so we went ahead with the expropriation, because it was for public use," Robles said.

Escobedo went to court to stop the seizure Dec. 4, 2000—a day before Lopez Obrador took office—claiming construction was preventing him from gaining access to his property. On March 14, 2001, the court agreed with Escobedo and ordered construction stopped.

Lopez Obrador says work stopped then, a position backed by Carlos Heredia, director of Servimet from 2000 until 2002. Heredia said he received instructions from the mayor to halt construction the same day the court issued its order.

Local residents say they can't say precisely when work stopped, but construction worker Mateo Guerrero, 65, who's been building apartments nearby, said the road "has been abandoned for years now."

But the city apparently didn't remove construction equipment immediately, and on Aug. 30, 2001, Escobedo formally complained that he was still being denied access to his land. Attorney General Macedo, a Fox appointee, opened a formal investigation on Nov. 14, 2001.

Lopez Obrador and his supporters say such high-level involvement in a local matter proves conspiracy. They note that the leading presidential candidates of both the PAN and the PRI are longtime rivals of Lopez Obrador.

Lopez Obrador defeated the PAN's most likely presidential candidate, Interior Minister Santiago Creel, when the two men ran for Mexico City mayor in 2000. He lost to the PRI's likely candidate, party leader Roberto Madrazo, in a 1994 race to be governor of Tabasco, but polls show him leading Madrazo in the presidential contest.

Fox says there's no truth to the conspiracy charge and that his administration is interested only in enforcing the rule of law.

But there's no doubt that Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive and free-market disciple, and Lopez Obrador, a political scientist and business administrator, have clashed repeatedly since they came to power almost simultaneously four years ago.

Fox has blamed Lopez Obrador for rising crime in the capital, while Lopez Obrador says the capital, with a metropolitan population of 20 million, is the only place in Mexico enjoying economic growth.

With Congress considering lifting Lopez Obrador's immunity, Mexico City has become a battleground. The mayor's well-organized machine of supporters have been pasting yellow fliers seemingly everywhere that read "No al Desafuero," the legal term for stripping him of immunity.

Marchers have blocked traffic in front of the Congress and Fox's official residence of Los Pinos to protest the possible moves against Lopez Obrador.

Still, the odds in Congress look grim for the mayor. The committee that must first decide if his immunity should be lifted is made up of four legislators, only one of them from Lopez Obrador's PRD. Congress itself, which must approve any recommendation from the committee, counts only 95 PRD members among its 500 legislators.

There are also complaints that Fox has inappropriately tried to interfere in any legal proceedings that might arise. Last fall, he, Interior Minister Creel, and Attorney General Macedo met privately with the president of Mexico's Supreme Court, Mariano Anzuela.

"Where's the separation of power? What did they talk about?" the mayor fumed.

When, and if, Congress and Macedo will act isn't known. Fox has said he'll no longer comment on the issue, pending their action.

As for the road, there's still no way to get to the hospital from the south, though the city has built a road that loops around from the north to the hospital's southern entrance. That roadway opened in September, and Lopez Obrador was defiant as he inaugurated it.

"This is the scene of the crime," he said.


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

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

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