- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

Mexico’s election

Reporter Sharon Behn had been home from Iraq for all of 16 days when she flew off to Mexico City to cover last Sunday’s presidential election.

Those two weeks had been a bit of a whirlwind, boning up on Mexican political issues and interviewing officials from and experts on that country, even as she was pumping out a series of feature articles based on notes taken while still in Baghdad.

She was still writing Iraq articles up to the day before she left for Mexico, and thoughts of Baghdad were never out of her head.

“Even in Mexico City, I was checking the wires every day for what was going on in Iraq,” she recalls. “It’s not a story that once you cover you can easily leave behind. I kept in touch with my Iraqi contacts, basically just to make sure they were still alive.”

Casual visitors to Mexico are frequently warned about carjackers, kidnappers and worse, but Mrs. Behn says the differences from Baghdad were apparent before she left the airport.

“When you arrive in Iraq, you put on a bullet-proof vest, get in a car surrounded by several men with guns and start down the highway to the city,” she said. “No sightseeing, just a very direct shot to get you to a safe place as quickly as possible. When you arrive at your compound, you pass through a barrier surrounded by more men with guns and only then settle into a safe haven.

“When I arrived in Mexico, the hotel had not sent a cab like they were supposed to so I just called and got another. My bags didn’t arrive with the airplane, but I knew they would come eventually. I climbed into a comfortable taxi and cruised downtown to a Sheraton Hotel with a Starbucks next door. It was not quite like being on holiday, but it was a lot easier than in Baghdad.

“Everybody had warned me the taxis are dangerous in Mexico. But there is dangerous, and then there is being on a terrorist target list. Those are two different things — though it doesn’t mean I was any less careful.”

Camera-safe

One of the nicest differences about working in Mexico, Mrs. Behn says, was being able to work with a photographer — in this case staff cameraman Michael Connor. It is no longer safe for anyone to be seen in the streets of Baghdad with a camera, and the only Western photographers working there now are embedded with the military.

She and Mr. Connor arrived about a week before the election, making sure they had plenty of time to secure the raft of required press credentials and to establish the contacts they would need on election night.

“I was surprised at the level of organization,” Mrs. Behn says. “To get into the political rallies, every reporter had to have a press card with that day’s date. [Conservative candidate Felipe] Calderon’s events even had bar codes on the passes, and they checked as you went in and out.

“To get to the voting booths on election day you needed another special pass. This was because of a history of harassment at polling stations in Mexico. But everybody was very helpful, and they tried very hard.”

On election day, Mrs. Behn and Mr. Connor got up very early and went to the polling station where leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopes Obrador was to cast his ballot in a working-class neighborhood. Then they rushed to Mr. Calderon’s polling place in a somewhat better neighborhood, and finally to a rich neighborhood to hear the views of voters there.

By 4 p.m., Mrs. Behn was in her hotel room writing an early version of her story to be updated through the evening as the results came in. Then it was back into the streets for reaction as the first unofficial returns were reported. And then to the hotel again, to watch the coverage on TV and await the official results, scheduled for 11 p.m.

Those results, of course, were inconclusive, and we continue to wait for the Mexican election officials to formally certify the results.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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