Vicente Gomez, 72, stood with about 50 other men waiting for day work on the edge of the capital's Constitution Plaza. Each carried the tools of his trade and had a little, hand-lettered sign at his feet advertising skills as a carpenter, a plumber, a plasterer -- trades for which there is less and less demand as Mexico's economy grinds to a halt.

Gomez seemed especially stunned by the money problems his country has encountered: the billions of dollars owed to foreign nations, the plunging value of his tiny earnings, the skyrocketing costs of his basic needs.

"We're going to be left with nothing to eat -- or a war," he said quietly.

Other workers showed a resignation that was, if anything, more dispirited.

Juan Castillo, a plasterer, said his life has changed little in 40 years. "For the poor, things always go on the same," he said.

The fear that under pressure this acquiescence will be replaced by Gomez's apocalyptic vision of hunger and violence runs through all levels of Mexican society. It is the specter that this country's outgoing President Jose Lopez Portillo confronted throughout his six-year term and one that his successor, Miguel de la Madrid, may find more imminent than any Mexican president since the revolution seven decades ago.

"We must not fall prey to violence," Interior Minister Enrique Olivares Santana warned yesterday, "because the solution does not lie in that direction."

Mexico's links to the United States make the potential consequences of its economic crisis a source of concern for Washington as well, with problems ranging from increases in illegal immigration to greater conflicts over regional foreign policy.

There is, nevertheless, a strong belief that this country, rich in natural resources, will muddle through.

In the short term, rumors of coup plots, strikes or riots appear to rest chiefly on nervous speculation.

A word-of-mouth campaign is underway to stage a consumer boycott Tuesday and Wednesday to protest the rising cost of living. But such initiatives have received little support in the past and officials seem unconcerned.

Meanwhile, the country's most powerful labor leaders -- who are also key figures in the ruling party -- have signed a pact with private business to work for greater production.

Three weeks after the nation's financial crisis broke wide open with the year's second massive devaluation of the peso, this city and the industrial north, as well as the economically devastated border towns, remain relatively quiet.

But there is concern over what lies in wait a few months or years down the road. Social pressures continue and, between the mismanagement and corruption displayed in the current crisis, there is a serious threat to confidence in Mexico's political system.

When Lopez Portillo took office in December 1976 he found himself confronted with a demographic juggernaut: a country whose population growth could outstrip production, as its work force continued to increase at the rate of 3.5 percent a year. He gambled on overheating the economy by pushing growth to record levels with the nation's new-found oil revenues in the late 1970s -- despite the risks of inflation, debt and devaluation that now are crashing down on his administration -- because his primary goal was to create jobs.

Twelve months ago, the president could claim to have created 3.25 million jobs in four years. Although underemployment, the kind of idleness that forces Gomez and Castillo to stand each day at the side of the plaza and to find work only six months out of the year, often is estimated at 40 percent or more, Lopez Portillo was able to say a year ago that he had brought such "open unemployment" down to 3.5 percent.

As he said in his state of the union address last year, Lopez Portillo's plan was to fight inflation by increasing production and creating more productive work, a course he described as "longer and more difficult, but more just."

After a precipitous slide that began in January, however, Mexico's economy has stopped dead.

Many businessmen now call the current situation a depression and there are daily reports of layoffs in the automobile and textile industries and the construction business, which depends on government spending for up to 90 percent of its activity, according to independent economists.

There are no government unemployment or welfare payments as such, and the subsidies that barely sufficed for the poor when they were able to work are being phased out.

At the same time, stories of government corruption proliferate.

The weekly magazine Proceso reported in July that published accounts of corruption during Lopez Portillo's six-year term total about $3.25 billion stolen from the government.

How much went unreported is incalculable in this nation where cab drivers bribe police without stopping their cars and high public officials accumulate enormous personal wealth.

"It's the pork barrel we all expect in North American politics, but it's a lot larger, a lot deeper and a lot richer," said one diplomat.

The feeling on the street, as a carpenter put it, is often that the nation's leaders "are the only ones who take advantage" of Mexico's oil wealth.

Yet the system of government embodied in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is remarkably resilient. Although the new president essentially was chosen by Lopez Portillo and the July 4 elections simply ratified that decision, the fact that de la Madrid will be taking office on Dec. 1 and the administration will change undercuts much of the popular resentment.