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A Self-Styled Class Warrior Has Major Battle at Hand in Mexico

"Anything that the current regime doesn't agree with is written off as populist," Lopez Obrador complained at a recent news conference. "I'm neither a populist nor a neo-liberal. I want there to be justice in this country."

Although officials insist their motives are not political, the Fox administration and its allies have zealously pursued the legal case against Lopez Obrador, just as his presidential campaign gets underway.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, waving Friday during a rally in Mexico's Nayarit state, has become a polarizing figure. (Daniel Aguilar -- Reuters)

During a dispute over a piece of Mexico City land in 2001, a judge ordered construction halted on an access road to a hospital. As mayor, prosecutors said, Lopez Obrador ignored the court order so the road could be built; he has denied the charges.

This month, the lower house of Congress took the extraordinary measure of voting to strip the mayor's immunity from prosecution, allowing the case against him to go forward. Then, this week, the attorney general's office asked a judge to begin legal proceedings against him.

With public opinion strongly in his favor, Lopez Obrador announced that he wanted to go to jail to showcase the injustice being done to him. His political rivals promptly prepaid his $180 bail to keep him from parlaying incarceration into political martyrdom. A judge late Friday sent the case back to prosecutors saying they had not followed proper procedure with the unusual bail arrangement. Prosecutors pledged to refile the charges.

Lopez Obrador contends -- and polls show many Mexicans agree -- that the real motive behind the prosecution is to keep him off the presidential ballot.

"President Vicente Fox is a disgrace," Lopez Obrador said this week. "He is a traitor to the cause of democracy."

Fox, in turn, has insisted that the case is not about politics but about applying the rule of law to everyone, even popular politicians.

Even in his home state of Tabasco, opinion on Lopez Obrador is divided. During his career as an activist and two-time gubernatorial candidate, he led disruptive protests to focus attention on election fraud, workers' rights and the poor environmental record of Pemex, the national oil monopoly and the state's largest employer.

"In our region, there is misery all around the wells producing Mexico's black gold," Lopez Obrador shouted to crowds at the time. He also organized weeks-long marches to Mexico City to demand an end to corruption and a better deal for the poor. On the road, he slept with his supporters in open fields.

While fans compare him to Gandhi leading civil disobedience events, critics see him as more of a thug who mobilized menacing mobs. In 1996, protesters shut down scores of state-owned oil wells, at a cost of millions of dollars in revenue. Many, including Lopez Obrador, were injured in a skirmish with police and soldiers at the Pemex installations.

Lopez Obrador grew up in the era of the iron-fisted Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 until Fox's election in 2000. He himself was a rising PRI star until he broke away and helped form the rival Democratic Revolutionary Party in 1989.

"People don't like his methods," said Erwin Macario Rodriquez, a spokesman for the PRI in Tabasco. "They can lead to violence. And people don't like violence."

But back in the villages of the Gulf Coast where he grew up, Lopez Obrador is still a hero. During his two years in Tucta, residents said, he did more for the people than has any politician since. By living among them and even holding his wedding party there (his wife Rocio died in 2003 after a long illness), they said, he earned their lifelong support.

Montero recalled how Lopez Obrador got the state to send materials to build houses and a school, procured machines to help drain the swamp, and organized a workshop that taught villagers how to turn sheepskin and cedar into folk drums.

"The drums have allowed my oldest daughter to go to university," said Montero, who was helping to organize a caravan of villagers for the 12-hour ride to Mexico City for the Sunday march. "He was like a man who came to free us."

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