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In Mexico, Mixed Signals On Mayor's Political Future

President's Office Says Talk of Pardon Unauthorized

By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A18

MEXICO CITY, April 14 -- Confusion deepened Thursday over whether Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's future home is more likely to be a prison cell than the Mexican president's residence.

The day began with comments from a spokesman that President Vicente Fox was considering pardoning Lopez Obrador, who is expected to face relatively minor charges that could send him to jail and keep him off the 2006 presidential ballot. Meeting with reporters shortly afterward, Lopez Obrador seemed receptive, if a bit skeptical, to the idea of a pardon.

Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is favored in the 2006 presidential election. (Eduardo Verdugo -- AP)

Minutes later, as Lopez Obrador was still speaking, Fox's office issued a written statement saying that the spokesman who said Fox was thinking about a pardon was not authorized to do so.

Political analysts said the new twists in Mexico's ongoing political drama were most likely the brief appearance of a classic political vehicle, the trial balloon.

Several said Fox had been stunned by criticism, at home and in the international media, of his government's actions against the outspoken Lopez Obrador, who opinion polls show to be the favorite in next year's presidential election.

Lopez Obrador has portrayed himself as the victim of a campaign, orchestrated by Fox, to keep him out of the presidential race over charges that he ignored a court order to cease construction of an access road to a hospital. Fox has denied the case is political, insisting that it demonstrates that no one is above the law in Mexico.

But as criticism builds in newspaper editorials from the United States to Europe, analysts said Fox might be reconsidering. Several said hints about a pardon probably showed he was looking for a politically acceptable way out of the controversy.

"The international reaction is making them rethink the whole thing," said Marcela Gomez Zalce, a political columnist. "They thought they could keep this at home, but they couldn't."

The first signs of a possible shift came Thursday morning with comments by Fox spokesman Agustin Gutierrez Canet, published in The Washington Post and repeated to two other news organizations, that a pardon was one "scenario" Fox was considering.

Lopez Obrador said he would view a pardon as a "correction" by Fox. "In politics, corrections are valid," he said. "I think if you make a mistake you have to be capable of admitting it."

Still, he said, he thought it was "very strange" that Fox would consider a pardon after the government's efforts to prosecute him.

Fox's office then issued its written statement, saying that Gutierrez's boss, Ruben Aguilar Valenzuela, was the official spokesman for Fox and that the president's office did not recognize any statement "not made by the official spokesman." Gutierrez has been Fox's official spokesman for the foreign news media since 2003.

Thursday evening, Aguilar said in a telephone interview said that Mexican law did not give the president the authority to issue pardons in cases such as the one against Lopez Obrador. "The possibility of a pardon does not exist," he said.

Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, the former Mexican ambassador to the United Nations, said a pardon would allow Fox to claim that the judicial system had been strong enough to prosecute a powerful man while allowing Lopez Obrador to claim that Fox had been forced to admit the prosecution against him was a mistake.

"It's the best way out," Aguilar said. "But I don't know why Fox did not give up before all this damage was done."

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