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Mexico: Color It Green And See How It Fills Politicians' Pockets

by Ginger ThompsonThe New York Times
March 10th, 2004

If only there had been a camera to capture the moment: a leading Mexican politician literally down in the dumps.

With scandal threatening his political empire, Jorge Gonzlez Torres, the founder of the Green Ecological Party of Mexico, arranged a visit to a trash collection site in a well-kept condominium community called El Independiente. Once upon a time, he said, the lot next to the Magic Lantern Theater was a smelly dump. The Green Party, Mr. Gonzlez boasted, transformed it into community compost center, where residents turn rotting refuse into fertilizer for their flower gardens.

"This is what the Green Party is really about: getting people to take care of their environment," Mr. Gonzlez said, running handfuls of compost through his fingers as if it were gold dust. "Our trauma is that we have not been able to get the government to help us.

"Now they want to destroy us."

But it was hard to feel sorry for him.

Since 1996, Mexico has introduced numerous electoral reforms that were aimed at leveling a one-party political playing field but ended up making millions for men like Mr. Gonzlez. Among them are reforms that make it easier for grass-roots groups to win registration as political parties and others that make public funds and airwaves available to all that qualify.

Not many people expected utopia when the reforms were enacted. But in recent weeks, hidden cameras have exposed evidence that they have helped spread corruption through the political system on a scale even jaded Mexicans find breathtaking.

The airwaves have been flooded with grainy, muffled videotapes that appear to show some of Mexico's leading politicians and their operatives involved in egregious acts of venality. For the most part, the tapes show the same old misdeeds long considered signatures of Mexican politics. But one of the tapes confirmed a new development - small parties have become big businesses too.

That is the dominant image of the Green Party today: brought to millions of Mexican television viewers by a tiny camera, hidden in a necktie.

The camera caught Mr. Gonzlez's 32-year-old son, who serves as president of the Green Party and a member of Congress, in shady negotiations with a developer seeking permits to turn another sandy stretch of the Yucatn Peninsula into a tourist resort.

"What's our cut?" asks the senator.

The businessman holds up two fingers.

"Two million dollars?" the party leader said, keeping his cool.

The businessman nodded.

It was a far cry from what the reformers envisioned in 1996. Within a year, the new measures were credited with increasing the number of parties competing for power, and with helping the opposition win control of the lower house of Congress. Three years after that, a plain-talking politician named Vicente Fox was elected Mexico's first opposition president.

But the recent videotapes have brought the new system's drawbacks into focus. In a nation where more than half of all people live in poverty, Mexico's political system is the most expensive in Latin America. And the measures that opened the system to new parties also opened it to new capers.

The National Socialist Party, for example, was given some $40 million in public funds over four years. The party failed in midterm elections last July to win the required 2 percent of the overall vote needed to keep its registration. But the brief enterprise proved extremely lucrative for founder, Gustavo Riojas, and his family.

The authorities said that as president of the National Socialists, Mr. Riojas paid multimillion-dollar contracts for training and campaign advertising to companies that were run by relatives. But when the authorities went to look for him, Mr. Riojas fled and is now in hiding.

The Green Party is strikingly different from its counterparts around the world. The Gonzlez Green Party is conservative, not activist, and more comfortable as a part of the establishment rather than fighting it.

The party opposes abortion and has refused to condemn the death penalty. In a country racked with deep environmental troubles, the Green Party does not even have a bold environmental platform.

The party is dominated not by environmentalists but by business associates and former employees of the elder Mr. Gonzlez, owner of a construction company before he became Mexico's leading defender of green spaces. When the younger Mr. Gonzlez was elected to succeed his father as president of the party three years ago, he brought several former college buddies on board. Many of them are young scions, disparaged by political commentators as "juniors."

With the tacit support of the government and millions of dollars in television advertising, the Green Party grew to be Mexico's fourth-largest political party, controlling a coveted 6 percent of the vote. During the midterm elections last year, it received an average of more than $100,000 a day in public funds - more than $30 million - making it one of the richest Green Parties in the world.

But this latest scandal could topple the party, or at least its playboy president. It was in the middle of this political storm that his father quietly convened the interview at the community compost operation.

At worst, the elder Mr. Gonzlez said, his son is guilty of being gullible; caught in a trap set by rivals within his own Green Party.

"Jorge Emilio is a strong leader," the elder Mr. Gonzlez said. "He will survive this."

It was hard to tell where the truth lay in this carefully choreographed act of contrition. But one thing Mr. Gonzlez said rang true: "Politics in Mexico are a snake pit."





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