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Survival of Mexico's long-dominant PRI in question

MEXICO CITY—A secretly recorded telephone conversation and a stumbling presidential campaign have Mexicans asking if the country's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party finally may be headed to the grave.

All major opinion polls show the party, more commonly known by its Spanish initials PRI, a distant third in July's presidential elections. The same polls show the party losing seats in Congress, where its presence as the largest voting bloc allowed it to remain a power even after Vicente Fox became Mexico's first non-PRI president in 70 years.

Adding to the party's slippage is the recording of a prominent state governor celebrating his arrest of a journalist as a favor to a wealthy businessman who'd been linked to a man accused of running a child-sex ring. The tawdry affair reinforced public beliefs that PRI officials long have abused their powers.

The PRI had been synonymous with Mexican government since 1929. Fox's election in 2000 led many pundits prematurely to predict the party's demise. But the PRI still held a majority of governorships and its bloc in Congress thwarted Fox's every move at reform.

The last two months have brought a succession of scandals.

The PRI's presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo, has been unable to explain the vast fortune he acquired, including apartments in the United States, while working as a low-paid public servant. Squabbles with union leaders have alienated a key PRI voter group.

Two opinion polls published this week show Madrazo a distant third in Mexico's three-man presidential race, anywhere from 9 to 14 points behind front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City.

Pollsters said the soundings had been consistent for months and that Madrazo's decline soon would reach a point of no return.

"Within six weeks we are within six weeks of the elections. And if the PRI remains 12 points behind (Lopez Obrador) it's a lost cause," said Pablo Levy, the operations director of Covarrubias y Asociados, a polling firm. "We are at the point of definition."

Keeping the PRI afloat has been made harder thanks to the man whom all of Mexico now calls "The Precious Gov."

That's how Madrazo ally Mario Marin, the governor of Puebla state, is referred to in a recorded phone conversation with textiles magnate Kamel Nacif. The two are congratulating each other for Marin's jailing of a journalist on slander charges.

They began their taped exchange like this:

Marin: "What's up, Kamel?"

Nacif: "What's up, my precious gov?"

Marin: "My (expletive) hero!"

Nacif: "No, Papa, you're the hero of this movie."

The joke across Mexico now is to refer to the waiter, bartender or anyone on the other end of a phone line as "my precious."

The backdrop to their chat, made public on Valentine's Day, is far less funny. The tapes exposed Marin ordering his state prosecutor and judges to cross state lines and effectively kidnap a journalist who, in a book called "The Demons of Eden," linked Nacif to an alleged leader of a child-sex ring.

Cancun-based journalist Lydia Cacho's book used court records to detail a child-sex and pornography ring allegedly led by wealthy Cancun hotel owner Jean Thomas Succar Kuri. Succar Kuri was captured by the U.S. Marshals Service in Arizona on Feb. 5, 2004, after fleeing criminal charges in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. He's fighting extradition.

The secretly recorded tapes, delivered anonymously to the newspaper La Jornada and later posted on the Web site of the newspaper El Universal, show Marin and Nacif talking openly about having Cacho arrested. It isn't clear who taped the conversation.

Marin doesn't deny that the voice is his, but says the conversation's content has been altered. Still, the release of the tape set off a firestorm.

Mexican Cardinal Norberto Rivera demanded during Mass on Sunday that "justice must be served" and the president of the influential Mexican Conference of Bishops, Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago, said Monday that the foul-mouthed content of the tapes left him "nauseated" and that "they disgust me."

On Tuesday, Mexico's Congress voted to ask the nation's highest court to investigate whether Marin violated the journalist's rights.

For most Mexicans, the tape proved what they'd long suspected: that PRI officials bend the law for their own purposes.

"What stands out to me is that we now know more about how they do things. That's what gets my attention," said Cesar Ramirez, 35, an industrial designer in Mexico City. "All of society is enjoying this, but also suffering it, taking into account how" our system has worked.

The PRI often has been held in low esteem. It was accused of stealing the close 1988 presidential election with a mysterious computer crash and of covering up the campaign-trail murder of its sluggish presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994. In 2000, it lost the presidency for the first time since 1929.

PRI partisans dismiss talk of the party's demise.

"They've said for 50 years that the PRI is going to be buried. Every election they announce our death and like a phoenix we rise and go forward," said Carlos Flores Rico, a PRI congressman from the border state of Tamaulipas.

But Francisco Abundis Luna, who runs the polling firm Parametria, thinks that midlevel PRI officials soon will abandon a sinking ship, defecting to Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolutionary Party in hopes of obtaining posts in a Lopez Obrador government.

"It's difficult to announce the disappearance of the PRI," he said. "It will be possible to pronounce its defeat."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Vicente Fox, Roberto Madrazo, Mario Marin, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

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