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Acapulco Mayoral Hopeful Calls Corruption Rife in City

Mexico: Candidate says current officeholder's term illustrates how nation's ruling party holds on to power.

September 21, 1996|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ACAPULCO — Rogelio de la O Almazan started his political career as do most of Mexico's local elite--as a low-level aide to one of the nation's most powerful families.

As he toiled his way up the ranks in political jobs in Acapulco, De la O gained the trust of the Figueroas, a family dynasty that has governed this Pacific resort and the state of Guerrero for much of this century through Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Three years ago, De la O's loyalty was rewarded: Ruben Figueroa, then Guerrero's governor-elect, backed him as the party's mayoral candidate in this town of great potential riches where the PRI has never lost. Neither did De la O.

But today, in an election campaign to replace the 64-year-old Acapulco mayor, who is constitutionally prevented from seeking a second term, the opposition is casting him as an example of how the ruling party has kept itself in power for 67 years.

The story of De la O is also a case study in how Mexico is grappling with the problem of corruption--a problem that the PRI's leadership in Mexico City acknowledges and plans to address head-on during a three-day landmark assembly for party reform that began Friday evening in Mexico City.

Acapulco's mayoral campaign has become a public forum for debate on the corruption issue, provoked by opposition candidate Zeferino Torreblanca.

Armed with stacks of documents he says were leaked from City Hall, Torreblanca asserts--and the mayor denies--that De la O has presided over a corrupt system of patronage that has enriched the mayor and his family.

In a Sept. 13 letter to The Times, the mayor called the opposition's charges "false and insidious" and said Torreblanca's claims amount to a case of political sour grapes.

De la O defeated Torreblanca in the 1993 election, and the mayor suggested that Torreblanca, who is now a congressman, is trying to use the corruption issue for personal political gain.

"All of the attacks of Zeferino on me and my family are the product of his . . . political frustration," the mayor told The Times in his letter, adding that Torreblanca "was born to lose."

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A state criminal investigation of De la O's activities as mayor, based on Torreblanca's charges, is pending. His lawyers have filed a lengthy denial in their legal response to the charges; their brief says the case has "all the makings of a cheap television novel."

A complaint that Torreblanca filed with state prosecutors against De la O last December was reviewed by the state legislature, which the PRI dominates, and dismissed earlier this year.

Torreblanca says the leaked documents offer a rare glimpse of how the PRI works and how it wins elections in a resort city where thousands of Americans vacation each year.

"This is a chronicle of a sick society," declared Torreblanca as he turned over copies of the documents to The Times. "You have corruption everywhere, and at all levels."

Curbing corruption nationwide is a main demand of a new, well-armed guerrilla group that targeted Mexican soldiers and police last month in lightning raids in central and southern Mexico, including one attack in Acapulco. And corruption, which President Ernesto Zedillo has vowed to combat, was a dominant concern of average Mexicans in a recent poll by The Times and Mexico City's Reforma newspaper.

Since Zedillo took office in December 1994, federal prosecutors have filed corruption charges against more than half a dozen prominent Mexicans, including the elder brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. (Raul Salinas is also charged with murder.) Several former governors are under investigation for corruption as well.

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But corruption cases are still uncommon at the local level, where opposition leaders say a strict code of silence still prevails. In the case of Acapulco, Torreblanca said a city worker broke that code and leaked him the documents.

"For the United States, this corruption is an international issue," Torreblanca said. "The more corruption we have, the more poverty we have. And the more poor people we have, the more illegal immigrants you are going to have in the United States. There is a definite link."

Torreblanca's Acapulco documents, which The Times examined, show the names of scores of local PRI officials, journalists and union leaders on the city payroll. Many of those people say they do no work for the city and receive no salary. But city funds are paid out in their names every month, according to the documents.

In a second complaint filed against the mayor in July, Torreblanca alleges that the payroll records amount to "fraudulent administration," a charge the state prosecutor's office confirmed is part of the pending criminal investigation.

National PRI leaders believe that the corruption allegations may well hurt the PRI in Acapulco's Oct. 6 election, although the party's polls show that the PRI is still far ahead.

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