TUCTA, Mexico -- Until 1977, this village in sweltering Tabasco state was a patch of misery surrounded by a swamp. Families lived in thatched huts, with no roads, electricity or relief from swarms of mosquitoes carrying malaria.
Then a 24-year-old government worker arrived, brimming with outrage against poverty. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a shopkeeper's son from a nearby village, set out to change the world, starting here. For the next two years, he helped dig canals to drain the swamp and create islands where bananas, papayas and cedar trees now bloom.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, waving Friday during a rally in Mexico's Nayarit state, has become a polarizing figure.
(Daniel Aguilar -- Reuters)
"We were completely abandoned until he came," said villager Juan Montero Hernandez, now 45. "Without him, what would have become of us?"
Over time, the young crusader rose to become mayor of Mexico City and a leader with a loyal following among the country's impoverished majority. He is now considered the front-runner in next year's presidential elections, and thousands of people from Tabasco and other states are traveling to Mexico City Sunday to join a huge rally for him.
But Lopez Obrador, 51, has also inspired fierce critics who view him as a sanctimonious grandstander and worse. In his zeal, they charge, he ignores the law and mismanages public money. If anyone dares to question his methods, they say, he accuses them of being part of a dark conspiracy to bring him down.
Now, Lopez Obrador is the focus of a political drama that has divided the nation, and the object of a major legal crusade over a minor criminal complaint stemming from a municipal land dispute. While supporters are trying to get him elected president, critics are trying to get him arrested -- or at least declared ineligible to run.
So divisive is the firestorm over Lopez Obrador that observers from Mexico's Catholic bishops to Wall Street analysts have warned that it could lead to dangerous instability in the country of 106 million.
Lopez Obrador's popular image is that of a relentless champion of the downtrodden, a class warrior railing against the corrupt elite. He has carefully crafted that image, living in a modest apartment and driving a beat-up sedan. Upon being elected mayor in 2000, he promptly cut his own salary.
Two years later, in a typical gesture, he evicted several millionaires from sprawling properties that had illegally encroached on Chapultepec Park, the beloved green space and popular picnic spot at the heart of Mexico City.
"We don't owe anything to any special interest group -- not businessmen, not journalists, not bankers, not politicians. . . . We don't have to lick anyone's boots," he told reporters at the time. "We just have to deliver to the people."
In nearly every speech, Lopez Obrador mentions the gap between Mexico's rich and poor. He has said the country needs an "alternative" to the current economic model pursued by President Vicente Fox, but economic analysts said he has not made it clear what policies he would follow if elected. He has started one urban welfare program after another, raising the city's debt in the process.
The mayor's message has alarmed many business leaders, sending chills through the country's political and economic establishment. Some critics call him Mexico's version of Hugo Chavez, the populist Venezuelan president whose giveaways to the poor have slowed economic progress.
"He's a man who likes to call attention to himself, but he doesn't have the background to be president," said Efrain Garcia Mora, head of a business association in Tabasco state.
Aides to Lopez Obrador, however, assert that he has proved to be a solid partner with private business and has attracted sizable foreign investment to the capital. They say he does not oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement championed by Washington, and they reject any comparison with Chavez, suggesting that Lopez Obrador has more in common with moderate, center-left leaders in Brazil and Chile.