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DECISION IN MEXICO : Tijuana Voters Recall Assassinated Candidate : Baja California: State has suffered recent violence, but election day is peaceful and turnout is high.


TIJUANA — The Lomas Taurinas neighborhood sprawls across an urban canyon, a natural amphitheater that was the stage for the crime that changed Mexican history in March--and cast a shadow over the presidential election Sunday.

Five months after an assassin emerged from a crowd in a dirt plaza here and gunned down ruling party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, Lomas Taurinas confronted history again. Solemn voters lined up at outdoor polling places in a dusty, impoverished landscape dominated by tributes to the fallen Colosio: signs, a larger-than-life statue, a shrine marking the murder scene.

"With all my heart, I wanted him to win," said Emilia Arangure, an elderly woman dressed in black who stopped at the shrine to kneel in prayer. "Unfortunately, death came first. I came to vote for him in spirit."

Also paying her respects was Maria Teresa Asencio, a 20-year-old landscaper, who recalled how on March 23 she shook Colosio's hand at the fateful campaign rally, then later watched in shock when he was brought down by two gunshots. Like many residents of this neighborhood, a stronghold of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Asencio said she voted for Colosio's replacement, Ernesto Zedillo, describing him as the candidate most capable of fighting crime.

"I feel the most secure with him," Asencio said.

Politically charged violence has created fear and uncertainty in Baja California. In addition to the Colosio assassination, Baja has been hit by the ambush murder of the Tijuana police chief and shootouts and scandals involving drug lords and corrupt police.

Nonetheless, the crisis does not typify life in the border state, and election day appeared to be shaping up as peaceful, if occasionally disorganized.

Baja's well-educated, civically active population has consistently registered the highest voter turnout levels in the nation: almost 80% in local elections in 1992. Compared to rural regions where PRI domination produces apathy, vote fraud and election-related strife, Baja's political culture has grown more democratic after five years of rule by the opposition National Action Party (PAN).

"We are advanced in the culture of political tolerance," said Tijuana Mayor Hector Osuna Jaime, a member of PAN. "We are accustomed to the alternation of power, to different political parties in the government." The question Sunday was whether the opposition would finally wrest the presidency away from the PRI--and what role this small but crucial state would play in the struggle.

All three candidates are considered competitive here.

Although the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is much stronger to the south, Cardenas won Baja in his 1988 presidential bid. Zedillo, who during campaign visits reminded audiences that he grew up in Mexicali, has led polls conducted locally. As for Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, he has drawn on the PAN's historical base of support along the length of the urban, independent-minded border area.

"I think there could be a surprise," said Jorge Perez, a Lomas Taurinas factory worker, who said he planned to vote for Fernandez. "Zedillo doesn't convince me. Diego has more character."

Perez was interviewed as he watched churchgoers crossing a tattered bridge to the polling station in front of a row of multicolored shops. They lined up silently, intent on the voting ritual, taking refuge from the sun beating down on the plaza where bulldozers had been hard at work on a new park in recent weeks. Some residents dismissed the project as an unsubtle effort by the government to win votes for the PRI.

Elsewhere in Tijuana, government officials and election observers reported no major incidents or problems at the majority of polling places. The most common complaint was the failure of some election officials to begin the voting on time.

In addition, an observer working for the state human rights commission said he had observed some breakdowns in the much-publicized security measures promised by the government. For example, a late start caused some officials to neglect to sign the ballot forms as required and others did not check the thumbs of voters for the indelible ink indicating they had already cast ballots, said the observer, who asked not to be identified.

The most urgent problems, however, arose at eight special Tijuana polling places designated for "voters in transit," a category encompassing Mexicans residing in the United States but eligible to vote in Mexico. The sheer number of voters overwhelmed the system in Tijuana, as it did throughout the nation; at the airport, the bus station and the main post office in the downtown tourist district, lines stretched for blocks, causing five-hour waits and angry grumbling.

"The problems at the special polling places are very serious," said Javier Gonzalez Monroy, a city council member and state president of the PRD. "There is a general lack of organization."

Gonzalez pointed out that support for Cardenas is particularly strong among Mexicans in the United States and that the PRD could suffer.

Emilio and Adriana Santos, a factory worker and nurse from South Gate, accompanied a cousin from Jalisco to Tijuana hoping to vote, then realized they did not possess current voting credentials.

Despite his 15 years living north of the border, Emilio Santos said he remains engrossed in Mexican politics and hopeful for a clean and fair election.

"We want a change," he said. "The people will not accept more lies and stealing. We want the truth."

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