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Mexico City mayor loses immunity, clearing the way for charges

MEXICO CITY—Mexico's Congress voted Thursday to deprive Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of immunity from prosecution, a step that's likely to prevent him from running for president next year and may set off months of political tension and chaos.

After an emotional debate that lasted almost 10 hours, Congress voted 360 to 127, with two abstentions, to allow Lopez Obrador to be charged with contempt of court for allegedly failing to halt construction in 2001 on an access road the city was building across private property to a hospital in northwest Mexico City.

Lopez Obrador had no immediate comment, but the vote was greeted with anger by tens of thousands of his supporters who crowded Mexico City's main square, where they watched the proceedings live on huge television screens.

"The fight will go on," one speaker exhorted the crowd as a group of papier-mache figures dressed as Mexican President Vicente Fox, his wife, Marta, and other officials in prison garb were paraded around.

Earlier in the day, Lopez Obrador had told the crowd that whatever Congress' decision, he would run for president next year, even if he had to do so from jail.

"I'm convinced this trial is a farce," he told the masses. "But I am going to exercise my rights and defend the law. Don't have the least doubt—I haven't committed any crime or violated any law."

The crowd roared its approval.

Thursday's showdown was the culmination of months of rising political tension over the mayor's fate. Lopez Obrador, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, is reviled by much of Mexico's political elite, which fears his populist rhetoric.

But polls show him consistently ahead of the leading candidates for president from Mexico's two other major parties, the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, to which Fox belongs, and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until Fox defeated its candidate in 2000. Fox by law can't run for re-election.

Political analysts have worried that barring Lopez Obrador from seeking the presidency will lead to unrest and even violence. Mexico's stock market has been declining steadily in recent days, largely out of concerns about the political developments.

During Thursday's debate, those favoring lifting Lopez Obrador's immunity insisted that politics played no part in their position.

"The mayor defied, disobeyed the law and abused his mandate," Assistant Attorney General Carlos Vega Memije said. "This is not about a road to an expensive hospital. This is about the mayor continuing construction 11 months after a court ordered him to stop on March 14, 2001."

Lopez Obrador gave a spirited defense in a half-hour speech in which he accused Mexico's political elite of drumming up the contempt of court allegation in an effort to keep him from running for president in next year's election.

"Where is the bad faith if the road wasn't built?" he told the legislators. "And I want to clarify, Vega Memije said three times that in 11 months I disobeyed the judge's order. We're talking about 200 meters. Do you think that in 11 months we couldn't have finished the road?"

At least one PRI congressman, Roberto Campa Cifrian, seemed to agree that the issue was more about the mayor's leftist politics than whether he broke the law.

"The problem is not that Lopez Obrador is a dangerous delinquent, the problem is he is a dangerous politician," Campa said. "When President Fox was elected in 2000, he was also called a messiah, a radical, but no one thought of eliminating him from the race. His government meant democracy had arrived. The only reason for this is to twist the law to get rid of a political adversary."

But in the end the vote went pretty much as had been expected in the 500-seat Congress, where Lopez Obrador's PRD holds only 95 seats.

From afar, the dispute at the heart of the debate seems a minor one: whether the city stopped building a road after a property owner won a court ruling overturning the city's expropriation of his land. Lopez Obrador says he ordered the construction stopped immediately, but an attorney general's investigation found differently.

But the issue is much greater, threatening not only Lopez Obrador's possible run for the presidency, but also, observers say, Mexicans' faith that the days of presidents picking their successors are over.

The controversy has transfixed Mexico for months, and tens of thousands began arriving Wednesday night at the city's main square, the Zocalo, where the mayor's office is located across from the city's 500-year cathedral and next to the country's National Palace.

Giant banners bearing the likeness of Pope John Paul II draped the cathedral, but the people in the square paid little attention to the recently departed pope. Instead, they bore posters and T-shirts bearing the yellow Aztec sun, the emblem of the mayor's center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party.

All night long, the square was filled with the ringing of church bells, protest songs and speeches denouncing the possible move against the mayor.

Addressing the crowd, Lopez Obrador called for calm.

"History shows that transformation is not achieved from the presidency. It's been won by the struggle and suffering of men and women who didn't want fame or fortune," he said.

"Obrador! Obrador!" the crowd shouted, then chanted, "We feel it, we know it, Andres is president!"

How soon Federal Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha will charge the mayor isn't certain. But on Tuesday, officials in the attorney general's office held a special news conference to emphasize that they believe they can prove he violated the law.

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

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

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