Protesters Barricade Banks in Mexico

By Lorraine Orlandi
Thursday, August 10, 2006

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 9 -- Protesters blocked access to foreign banks in Mexico on Wednesday to protest what they said was election fraud while judges and troops oversaw a partial recount that could decide July's presidential vote.

Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador surrounded the main offices in Mexico City of U.S.-based Citigroup's Mexican unit Banamex, the Bancomer bank owned by Spain's BBVA and British giant HSBC. They closed them for several hours.

López Obrador, a fiery anti-poverty campaigner, narrowly lost the July 2 presidential vote to conservative ruling party candidate Felipe Calderón.

He says many votes for him went untallied while others were stolen from ballot boxes, and is demanding a recount of all 41 million ballots cast.

Guarded by soldiers, election officials began a recount of votes from 9 percent of polling stations. The partial recount was ordered by a top electoral court in a bid to clear up fraud allegations.

López Obrador's followers have crippled downtown Mexico City for the past 10 days by setting up tents on the main Reforma boulevard running through the business district.

All but one of Mexico's major banks are in the hands of foreign companies, and the industry's sell-off has been a symbol of the free-market reforms in Mexico disliked by the left.

Protesters chanted slogans outside the HSBC building, a shiny new skyscraper on Reforma Avenue, as dozens of riot police officers stood guard.

The protests had a nationalist tinge. Demonstrators draped a banner in Mexico's red, white and green colors over the front entrance to a large Banamex office in the Spanish colonial center of the capital.

"Banamex is really Citigroup, a foreign bank that ransacks the country," said Gerardo Fernandez, spokesman for the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD.

The Mexican Banks Association threatened legal action against the protest organizers.

Judges, election officials and party representatives will spend up to five days checking about 4 million votes at 11,839 voting stations.

One recount at a center in Mexico City was painfully slow, with PRD representatives asking court actuaries to note every detail of proceedings.

It took about an hour to tally a few hundred votes in front of a judge. A leftist official videotaped the recount.

In the first few hours of the recount, officials detected serious irregularities in at least 15 of the 149 electoral districts being checked, said senior PRD figure Ricardo Monreal.

Calderón's campaign says the election was clean.

If the partial recount shows López Obrador closing the gap on Calderón, it could force the electoral court to open more ballot boxes. If there is no big change in the numbers, López Obrador will come under heavy pressure to give up his fight.

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