SAN LUIS POTOSI, Mexico — The old man grimaced as medics worked to immobilize his broken right leg. It had been smashed by stick-wielding police who dispersed a political demonstration in brutal fashion.
The rescuers lacked bandages to secure a splint, so they used what was at hand--a torn blue and white banner of the conservative National Action Party, a strong anti-government force in this city in the high desert of central Mexico.
Although the incident, captured by a local television news photographer, occurred Jan. 1, the sight of the injured victim wrapped in the banner of an underdog party may become Mexico's political image for 1986.
In towns from the U.S. border to the Guatemalan frontier, Mexicans have been protesting election results with increasing frequency, not only where the National Action Party is the loser but also where other small parties fail to gain office in competition with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Mexico's ruling juggernaut.
Almost always, the voters complain of fraud. Sometimes, the protests turn violent.
In San Luis Potosi, a mining center and state capital 300 miles northwest of Mexico City, one man died and scores were wounded when plainclothes police broke up a demonstrating crowd on New Year's Day. In Chiapas in far-southern Mexico, irate voters took over four city halls. The ensuing violence left at least two dead.
In recent months, demonstrators have protested about voting irregularities in several states, including Jalisco, San Luis Potosi, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Tlaxclala, Baja California and Tamaulipas. Last year, strong protests over election results erupted in the state of Sonora along the border with Arizona and in Nuevo Leon and its capital, Monterrey, Mexico's third-largest city.
More Unrest Seen
The country could be in for more unrest. This year, 13 governorships and about 200 mayoralties are being contested. The Institutional Revolutionary Party--the PRI, as it is universally known by its Spanish initials--rarely loses elections, fair or foul, and seems intent on recapturing city halls that it lost in past elections.
The PRI has never lost a governor's race during its almost 60 years in power.
"Voters are upset, but there are no outlets for change," said Salvador Nava, an anti-PRI politician and former mayor of San Luis Potosi. "These demonstrations are the only way, for now."
The recent disturbances have caught the attention of President Miguel de la Madrid. "Countries that divide themselves, that break their system of law and social peace, easily become prisoner of international turbulence," he told a gathering of government and armed forces officials.
The PRI's powerful labor leader, Fidel Velasquez, accused the National Action Party, which is strongest in the northern states, of using "guerrilla force" to attack the government.
De la Madrid came to office three years ago promising a cleanup of corruption and an opening of the country's electoral system. Widespread reports of voting fraud appear to have reduced that pledge to rhetoric, and the resulting unrest has marred the country's cherished image as a stable democracy.
In July, officials in several towns were seen stuffing ballot boxes. In the December mayoral elections in San Luis Potosi, observers reported seeing ballot tallies marked in favor of the National Action Party candidate, only to hear results that favored the PRI.
Like protests that followed elections elsewhere, the demonstration in San Luis Potosi occurred on the day when the new PRI mayor was inaugurated, and like some others, it got quickly out of hand.
A videotape made by Channel 13 in San Luis Potosi, an independent station, showed a dramatic sequence of police brutality.
At the beginning, perhaps 1,000 demonstrators gathered at the town center to hear speeches by the losing mayoral candidate of the National Action Party--or PAN by its Spanish-language initials. Some on the fringe of the crowd dumped garbage on city hall steps and threw rotten eggs at the 130-year-old building's facade.
Opposition speakers urged the crowd to halt such actions, but some of the demonstrators seemed drunk and kept throwing eggs and vegetables, sometimes taking aim at plainclothesmen.
Later, a government functionary appeared, berated the crowd, praised the new mayor and was set upon by some bystanders. No sooner had the demonstrators run down and kicked the bureaucrat than the plainclothesmen, produced long, thin bats and began beating nearly everyone within reach.
They repeatedly kicked a fallen demonstrator, squirted tear gas in the faces of old ladies and whipped an elderly man who tried to escape into the cathedral. Youths had to run gauntlets of swinging sticks to leave the plaza.
A dead man was found blocks away from the scene. The government said he was hit by a car. The opposition asserted that he was beaten and staggered away before falling dead.