Nobody can really say with any certainty what the precise omen was that distracted Mexico from this year's presidential race. Perhaps it was Pajarito, the big bull that jumped a fence in the stadium and gored spectators, or maybe it was the small bull that suddenly appeared out of nowhere on an Aguascalientes street and chased down the poet. Maybe it was the turtle head that was found tucked into a wall of Acapulco's city hall. Or it could just have been the screams of the witches reputed to fly over the rural town of Jesus Maria.
In any event, the public has been served up a televised platter of scandal, tragedy, intrigue, disaster and violence. If narco wars weren't enough, the drama of 65 miners killed in an accident had the nation reeling in horror. As Tijuana political columnist Jesus Blancornelas noted, pictures of mangled corpses tend to submerge the national political dialogue.
In between the episodes of political sleaze and disaster, five men and women are trying to replace Vicente Fox in Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Felipe Calderon, Roberto Madrazo, Patricia Mercado and Roberto Campa all hope to be elected Mexico's next president on July 2. At this point, it's difficult to say how much of their messages are getting through to the wider public.
Shaping an already cynical political culture are an almost weekly mill of new scandals. One key episode involves author Lydia Cacho, who was criminally charged with defamation because of her book about a ring of rich pedophiles connected to Jean Succar Kuri, a Cancun businessman jailed in Arizona and awaiting extradition to Mexico. While Cacho's brief arrest last December provoked protest from journalists, feminists and human rights activists, the issue didn't take center stage until San Valentine's Day, celebrated as the Day of Love and Friendship in Mexico.
On Feb. 14, a surreptitiously taped telephone conversation between Kamel Nacif Borge, who is cited in Cacho's book The Demons of Eden as Succar's protector, and Mario Marin, the governor of Puebla state, was leaked in the press. Replete with crude language, the conversation exposed Cacho's detention as a setup between the "precious governor," as Nacif fondly called Marin, and the governor. Other taped conversations between Nacif and different individuals implied a plot to have inmates rape Cacho in jail, a fate that was narrowly averted through quick action by suspicious guards, according to the journalist.
The Cacho scandal shattered the political landscape. Already suffering from campaign troubles, Roberto Madrazo, the presidential candidate of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was forced to distance himself from party comrade Marin. Calls for the governor's impeachment and investigation ringed the halls of the national Congress. Other prominent names perhaps linked to the pedophile ring were mentioned, and some politicians hurled insults at each other with civil words like "queer."
In a country where a good portion of the political class is held in wide disrepute, the spectacle of politicians finishing each other off with flamethrowers was suddenly in the air. If Julia Child were still alive, she might well choose salchica al horno, baked frankfurter bathed in jalapeño and onion, as the food of the season south of the border.
Analysts disagree over the ultimate impact of the soap-opera-like political drama characterizing this stage of the presidential election campaign, which one young woman simply called "a comedy," and a tragic one at that. Columnist Carlos Ramirez worries Mexicans will sink into deeper cynicism, while University of Puebla researcher Huberto Juarez maintains that a long-overdue house-cleaning and a reaffirmation of civil society, perhaps evidenced by the large anti-Marin street protest held in Puebla on Feb. 26, are possible.
Politically, the conventional wisdom is that front-running presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will be the beneficiary of the turmoil. A former Mexico City mayor, Lopez Obrador is the standard-bearer of the three-party, center-left coalition named For the Good of All. Draping himself in nationalist symbols, Lopez Obrador, or "El Peje" as he is popularly known, is running under a slogan somewhat reminiscent of the old Latin American School of Liberation Theology: "First Come the Poor."
"We have to rescue Mexico," Lopez Obrador appealed to thousands of supporters gathered in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo for a kickoff rally last January.
Touring the nation, Lopez Obrador proposes a new social safety net. He vows to provide free medicine for people without insurance; strengthen public education; ensure free breakfasts and school supplies for needy schoolchildren; construct new hospitals and roads; respect freedom of expression; and defend human rights. Like the late guitarist Jerry Garcia, Lopez Obrador gives a much better performance in person than on tape. Holding rallies that attract crowds ranging from 5,000 to 60,000 people, El Peje repeats his Alternative Project of the Nation, typically tailored to the locality. Supporters are drawn to Lopez Obrador by his folksy charisma, austere lifestyle and commitment to the lower classes.
"He's more honest, closer to the poor people," says Mirna Ramos, a resident of the Guerrero coast.
From the right, Lopez Obrador is slammed as a "populist" who will burden Mexico with new debts for his new social programs. From the left, critics, most notably Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, blast Lopez Obrador for surrounding himself with people once close to former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and not seriously challenging big capital.
Internationally, El Peje causes the Bush Administration discomfort. The candidate pledges to renegotiate the section of the North American Free Trade Agreement that allows the tariff-free importation of staple corn and bean products into Mexico beginning in 2008, and he promises to turn Mexican consulates in the United States into activist "legal agencies for the defense of migrants." Much to the dismay of the US elite, Lopez Obrador declares he will not open up Mexican oil fields to foreign investment.
El Peje will be hard to beat, hence the media blitz for President Fox's candidate, Felipe Calderon of the center-right National Action Party, and the president's own unprecedented activism promoting his administration's social programs, which Calderon dutifully promises he will maintain. Running second to Lopez Obrador in most polls, Calderon is making an energetic effort to overtake the frontrunner.
Boasting a youthful gleam, the former Fox administration energy secretary portrays himself as the candidate of the "future," the leader of a new Mexico that will pull itself up to the top of global competition.
Yet as the swirling events outside the political race proper starkly demonstrate, Lopez Obrador and Calderon are not simply running against each other in this surreal election year. Forced to react to each new scandal, they are historically burdened with all the unresolved contradictions, whether they smack of political corruption or organized crime, like the Fox administration and those that preceded it. At this stage in the game, it's the unpredictability of the raging bull Pajarito that best symbolizes the election year.
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist and author who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.