Monday, October 11, 2004

MEXICO CITY — Liberated from 71 years of one-party rule, Mexican politics often are described these days as a pathetic circus or a painfully bad soap opera.

Often colorful, campaign politics now swamps all mass media, including comic books, which have an huge appeal in Mexico.

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is vying for the presidency, is circulating a comic book designed to reach what he views as his loyal supporters: the working-class masses.

Called “Stories of the City,” the comic strip features graphic characters slamming the honesty of the mayor, who is portrayed as a man of courage.

A leering figure, poised to devour ordinary folk, looms on the cover. The ugly, toothy creature resembles a shark or even a hooded Inquisition executioner.

“That, Juan, represents the dark forces of society, those that steal from us, deceive us and work only to take advantage of things,” says a sage older man, in response to a frightened youth’s panicked inquiry.

No one in Mexico doubts the existence of forces willing to pillage public treasuries. The mayor himself has been accused of corruption.

But the comic book’s point is that “dark forces,” or Mr. Lopez Obrador’s political rivals, are scheming to undermine his bid to become the president of Mexico in 2006.

On the cover, a wide-eyed mother clutching a baby demands to know: “Who? Who? Who do they want to destroy?”

Another woman answers, arching her eyebrow: “Lopez Obrador, no?”

Conspiracy theories are a staple in Mexico, which emerged only four years ago from seven decades of single-party rule during which secrecy was the norm.

With a history of government nonaccountability, it is tempting for politicians to resort to blaming conspirators whenever the going gets rough. And the popular comic-strip graphics are a great propaganda tool.

This theater would be more amusing were it not for what is at stake. Mexico is one of the world’s leading exporters of manufactured products and a large oil producer, yet almost half the population is poor.

Faith in the judicial system is so scant that many would rather string up suspected kidnappers or thieves than turn them over to police.

Mr. Lopez Obrador wants desperately to convince Mexicans that he’s the man to take this all on.

He once belonged to the old regime, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled for 71 years until Vicente Fox won the presidency for the conservative National Action Party in 2000.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Lopez Obrador bolted to the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and now wants the party’s presidential nomination for 2006.

He almost had it sewed up. Then he started whining about conspiracies, and some say he has seriously jeopardized his appeal.

The mayor offended legions of Mexicans by complaining that right-wingers, what he calls “dark forces,” were behind a massive citizens’ march against crime held in Mexico City over the summer.

He also blamed “dark forces” for revealing corruption that his colleagues were involved in. Several PRD militants were caught on videotape stuffing their pockets with bribes, and Mexico City’s chief financial officer was captured on tape in a Las Vegas casino gambling with funds presumed to be looted from the city’s coffers.

“How strange. Hotels in Las Vegas don’t permit photos of players,” the comic-book mayor thinks out loud in “Stories of the City.”

“They are out to get me,” he concludes.

Mr. Fox, the mayor’s nemesis, also played the blame game recently when his top aide quit in July — comparing the resignation to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas.

Alfonso Durazo left after accusing Mr. Fox’s wife, Marta Sahagun, of weakening the presidency and Mexican democracy because she would not rule out her own presidential bid in 2006.

“Even Jesus Christ had someone who left him from among his 12 [disciples],” Mr. Fox said when Mr. Durazo quit.

A week later, Mrs. Sahagun announced that she wouldn’t run, giving Mr. Fox a chance to convince Mexicans that he is indeed running the country, not his wife’s campaign.

Voters in Mexico City are waiting to see whether Mr. Lopez Obrador can show that he can take charge, rather than remain a hapless cartoon victim of “dark forces.”

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