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Profile : 'The Tigress' Sharpens Her Claws for Parliament Battle in Mexico : Ex-presidents' paramour vows 'total war' against ruling party in the Senate.


MEXICO CITY — When Irma Serrano, this country's answer to Marilyn Monroe, published her kiss-and-tell autobiography several years ago, sweat ran through the corridors of political power.

Former presidents squirmed. Their wives fumed. And the onetime torch singer turned actress, known universally here as "The Tigress," held millions of Mexicans spellbound by her intimate, sometimes vicious accounts of Mexico's political kingpins.

Now, La Tigresa, the lover of former presidents who modeled nude for muralist Diego Rivera, is about to enter big-time politics herself.

Serrano will be a distinguished member of the opposition in the new Mexican Senate, which takes office Nov. 1.

The result is apt to be a bit more than the free-wheeling democracy promised by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled this nation without challenge for 65 years.

Serrano's Senate strategy, after all, is simple.

"Total war," she said, speaking of the ruling PRI and the new president, Ernesto Zedillo. Here, in fact, is just a sample of what the ruling party has in store from the Tigress when she takes her seat with fellow members of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), in the 128-member Senate:

"Look, I'm totally at war with them," she said in an interview in the salon of a Mexico City mansion choked with gold-leafed Louis XIV furniture, carved ivory tusks from China and other lavish bric-a-brac from around the world. "I am not a passive person. I am a rare woman in Mexico. I have based my entire life on aggression and rebuttal. To fight the fight. I am a warrior. And this is war."

It is just such forceful opposition that the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Zedillo, his presidential heir, said they hoped would come with a package of reforms that made Serrano's presence in the Senate possible.

Serrano did not win her Senate seat from the troubled southern state of Chiapas outright in a hard-fought campaign. She came in a close second in the Aug. 21 federal elections in which the PRI swept to victory. But under a new, proportional representation system designed to strengthen the opposition voice in the legislature--traditionally a rubber stamp for the president that Serrano and others have called "a joke"--she and dozens of other opposition second-place finishers were awarded seats in the Senate and House of Deputies.

Although PRI legislators will maintain a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress, they and Zedillo will lack the two-thirds majority needed to alter the Mexican constitution with impunity. Further, the new face of Congress is likely to change this nation's staid, predictable political landscape forever.

Serrano will likely be just one of the permanent--and outrageous--fixtures in a new era of congressional confrontation.

Sitting near her will be opposition PRD member Herberto Castillo, who is best known for a proposal to carve mammoth tunnels and install giant fans in the mountains south of the capital to suck out the city's notorious pollution.

The Senate will also include 24 members of the opposition National Action Party, among them veterans such as Juan de Dios Castro Lozano. He has pledged to revolutionize the Congress into an aggressive, presidential watchdog overnight.

But in the days since the elections, it has been the Tigress who has spoken out loudest and most boldly against the PRI, its new president and governor-elect in Chiapas, where opposition protest to that election result is threatening to rekindle a peasant-guerrilla uprising that left 150 dead in January.

The Tigress already has vowed to put 4,000 women on guard outside the governor's mansion in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez to prevent the PRI's governor-elect, Eduardo Robledo Rincon, from entering the building, let alone taking office--an event, she said, that will happen "only over my dead body."

She has called Robledo "an assassin" and "a man responsible for the slaughter of thousands of indigenous Mexicans." She has accused him of trying to kidnap her and asserted that the PRI was behind a road accident in Chiapas that left her injured during her first Senate bid there three years ago.

Privately, even Serrano's own party ideologues have expressed concern. Some said they are worried the Tigress will go so far and outrage so many that she will become an embarrassment to them too.

None of this seemed to concern Serrano as she reflected recently on her past, her future and the future of Mexican democracy.

Her face thick with makeup, eyebrows painted with her trademark cat lines, the Tigress was the picture of poise and principle as she responded to the suggestion that she may not be taken with sufficient gravity in the Senate.

"They must take me seriously," she said. "I am very strong. I am not a woman who has gotten a single thing through favoritism, or through help of any kind. I have fought for each one of my positions. And I swear, if someone must be respected, it's going to be me.

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