MEXICO CITY -- Now this is news: Pedro Infante is alive.

Mexico's most macho, ballad-singing screen idol didn't really die in a fiery private plane crash 33 years ago, as widely reported.

He somehow survived, got plastic surgery for his scars, then hid several years in the Nicaraguan jungles (or was it Guatemala?).

Or else he never got on the plane -- after all, who knows? His supposed remains were too charred to identify.

In any event, he's back. And for certain select audiences, he's singing the old songs again.

Mexico has had no Elvis sightings, but it does have Infante believers. Members of this small but surprisingly varied group insist this national icon of the 1950s was driven underground by government persecution yet has managed to stage a quiet comeback.

The man they flock to see doesn't advertise or give public concerts. He just turns up every so often at private dinner parties, mustachioed and aging, in an enormous sombrero and bearing a striking resemblance to Infante, who'd be 73 by now. He sings all his hits, like "You, Only You" and "Kiss Me, Little Brunette," grinning sweetly and winking at the senåoras.

But he calls himself Antonio Pedro, or sometimes, Pedro Antonio.

Not just nostalgia but cynicism about official versions of events binds the followers of Pedro or Antonio or Infante.

"This has important political implications," insists Luis Acosta, a prominent Guadalajara neurologist and one of the believers. "The next election could be affected if people know the role of the PRI {the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party)} in this."

Whatever that role is, however, remains vexingly hazy -- as does the true identity of Pedro or Antonio or Infante, who isn't helping.

"He never says he's Infante. It's better than that," said popular essayist Carlos Monsivais, who has seen the singer yet doubts he's the late legend incarnate. "He just presents himself, and sings, with every gesture down. And always with that hat... ."

Sometimes someone will ask how he survived the 1957 disaster that shocked fans throughout Latin America and drew thousands of mourners to Mexico City's streets, with some women crying so hysterically that the Red Cross came to their aid. "Pedro Infante: CARBONIZED!" screamed one tabloid headline that day. "His Death Fell Like a Bomb in Our Hearts," wailed another.

If he's in the mood, Antonio or Pedro or Infante will offer some oblique answers. Sometimes he'll even show fans the scar on his head, suggesting it's the result of a plane crash Infante survived in the early 1950s.

Among his believers, at least two schools of thought persist as to why he disappeared for so long. Either he'd been caught carrying on with the alleged mistress of President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines or had been discovered running arms to Fidel Castro's guerrillas in Cuba. Either way, they insist, the government was after him, and maybe still is.

No one ever asks if he is Pedro Infante. "It's not in the code," Monsivais said. But many who've seen him are convinced the similarities are more than mere coincidence.

"He eats chilies and garlic raw. He remembers 600 songs perfectly. Even the tiniest gestures are the same, like the way his tongue moves to the left when he sings falsetto," said Guadalupe Elizalde, director of a small private news agency called Notipress. Elizalde, who said she encountered the singer four years ago when he was living on the street, has devoted more than two years to documenting ways in which Pedro, or Antonio, is like Infante. But she has yet to find a publisher to print her work.

"The cowardice of Mexicans," she fumes. "You could drown in it."

Yet Elizalde said she wasn't surprised by how controversial the topic is. For many here, Infante ranks right up there with Pancho Villa as a national romantic treasure. In his youth, he was exceptional both at singing and stealing hearts -- he claimed three wives and had several reported amantes, affairs. But on top of that, he did motorcycle tricks and was, reportedly, also a really good guy.

Typical is the story of how he spontaneously gave away a beautiful serape, coveted for years in vain by his friends, to an old man at the roadside on a chilly night.

And on each anniversary of the April 15 plane crash, scores of Mexicans still make a pilgrimage to Infante's tomb. His records remain top sellers, and at least one of his 45 movies is on TV most weekends.

"Pedro Infante is the Mexican masculine myth," Monsivais said. "He's rural and urban, destructible yet vulnerable. He's romantic, athletic, macho -- but he cries."

Yet Infante, or his impostor, has made no move to claim that brilliant reputation.

"He feels this obsession that if he's exposed, he'll get killed," Elizalde said. At a meeting arranged by Elizalde, the singer never showed up. And several subsequent efforts to reach either of them proved unsuccessful.

Whoever the shy balladeer is, he might be justified in fearing any publicity leading to a meeting with Infante's third and last wife, soap opera star Irma Dorantes.

"If I find him, I will punch him," the handsome actress vowed last week during an interview at her house outside the capital.

"It's been 30 years that I've been hearing these stories, and I'm sick of people calling, stopping me in the street, telling me about him."

"Excuse me," she went on, after a tense pause, "but he's a stupid jerk who doesn't even want to be rich. He goes around groveling at these little dinners, when if he were really Pedro Infante, he could fill stadiums.

"And if it is him," she said, "what kind of man is he not to see his wife, his kids, his grandkids?