CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — In the course of last Sunday's state election, an American reporter asked a poll watcher about reports that ballot containers at Poll 30-A were full even before the voting began.
As the poll watcher started to explain, a man who said he was Octavio Zamora, the presiding officer at Poll 30-A, cut in and told the poll watcher, "Be quiet."
Then he turned to the reporter and said, "You are here to report, not investigate."
Throughout the day, foreign reporters covering the controversial election in Chihuahua were the object of great attention and, in many cases, hostility.
Both of the major parties involved tried to win the reporters over to their point of view. At times it seemed that the election was being held for the benefit of the press.
The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which claimed sweeping victories in Chihuahua, took pains to show that the voting was clean. It offered to transport reporters around the state in light aircraft. Before Election Day, party officials had invited several reporters to Chihuahua to meet the candidates.
The opposition National Action Party encouraged the press to report alleged instances of voting fraud, and offered cars and drivers to deliver the reporters to the polls.
Press Coverage Criticized
In all, the treatment reflected a growing sensitivity to the role of foreign reporters in Mexico. Some government officials have criticized foreign press coverage as excessively critical and have asserted that the American press in particular is taking part in an international campaign to defame Mexico.
"The foreign press is taking on the role of domestic newspapers in Mexico," economist Adolfo Aguilar said in an interview in Mexico City. "The news gets back here (to Mexico City) one way or another, and the government has to pay attention."
The reception for reporters in Chihuahua varied widely. In general, if something unsavory seemed to be afoot, reporters were not welcome. Presiding officers, appointed by the ruling PRI, took offense at some reporters' questions. Sometimes, when voting irregularities were discovered, officials decided that the presence of reporters was the problem, not the ballot-stuffing.
Polls Open to Full Box
At Poll 95-B, in the city of Chihuahua, a representative of the state voting commission came to investigate charges that the ballot containers were already full when the polls opened.
Several reporters peered into the containers, saw ballots there, and lifted the containers to test their weight. An official investigation was ordered, with the result that reporters were barred from the polling place.
"The vote goes on," said Fidel Leon, a self-described "auxiliary" who late in the day seemed to be in control of Poll 95-B. "Reporters are not allowed to observe."
At other polling places, reporters were barred from observing any of the voting at all.
A self-described poll president at Poll 44-C told two reporters that she would not allow the voting to begin until they had left. The reporters had come to check out a report that opposition poll watchers had been expelled from the precinct.
To back her threat, the woman addressed a crowd that had gathered, saying: "Foreigners have no business here. We don't want their intervention. This is Mexico."
People in the crowd shouted epithets at the reporters. As the reporters left, the crowd entered the polling place in a group, an unusual practice since voters elsewhere were entering one by one.
In Ciudad Juarez, along the U.S. border, soldiers briefly detained a photographer who was taking pictures of a ballot container that was being burned.
But officials at some of the polling places welcomed the press. At Poll 55-A in Chihuahua the voting was quiet, and poll watchers inspected the containers meticulously. There were no complaints of ballot stuffing, and at the end of the day, the poll watchers painstakingly annulled unused ballots and counted the others by hand. All this was done in the presence of foreign reporters.
The losing National Action Party was especially eager to cite incidents of fraud. Sometimes, however, National Action's reports of voting irregularities proved to be false. It is not clear at how many polling places anomalies occurred.
Rallies in the Streets
National Action, a conservative party with a strong appeal in the north of Mexico, called frequent press conferences to promise public protests if the party considered the voting to be fraudulent. Since the election, National Action has had protest rallies in the streets of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez.
Although foreign reporters were the target of some verbal abuse on Election Day, Mexican reporters faced greater pressures.
For foreigners, it is easy to shrug off charges that they are being told what to do by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, but Mexicans sometimes faced the task of defending their patriotism.