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Guadalajara's Mayor Mounts a Moral Crusade

January 12, 1997|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUADALAJARA — When a new set of ordinances takes effect here in Mexico's second-largest city in coming weeks, soccer fans who swear in the stadium may be subject to arrest, fines and detention. So may players who make obscene gestures on the field, adults who curse on street corners and even a 12-year-old who shouts too loudly.

And if two people of the same sex kiss in public after the ordinances become law, they may be fined and jailed for violating new regulations governing "abnormal sexual behavior."

In fact, under the 100 articles contained in the new ordinances, which local critics have dubbed the "Manual of Living According to Mayor Cesar Coll Carabias," any acts "that cause offense to one or more people" will be illegal and subject to prosecution.

In pushing the new ordinances through the City Council during the closing days of 1996, Guadalajara's Coll--who had already barred city employees from wearing miniskirts to work--called them an attempt to reinforce human dignity and reduce police corruption in this traditionally conservative city. The ban on "abnormal" public sexual conduct, Coll insisted, is merely an attempt to reinforce the city's morally upright image.

In the opening weeks of a politically charged year for Mexico, every move that Guadalajara's government makes has national implications.

Coll represents the most conservative, pro-Roman-Catholic faction of the National Action Party, or PAN, the country's largest opposition group. Independent opinion polls show the PAN running well ahead of Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in the run-up to Mexico City's mayoral election--scheduled for July 6, and the first such vote ever--as well as in federal races that will replace the entire lower house of Congress the same day.

Major victories could boost the PAN's chances of winning the presidency in the year 2000 for the first time. Although Coll is decidedly more conservative than most PAN politicians, his views represent an important faction of the party. And in many ways, analysts say, Guadalajara stands as one model of PAN governance: Coll's efforts to reduce corruption and streamline government--cutting red tape for private business, for instance--have won high marks from his supporters and his critics, but his morality policies have provided the opposition with potential campaign ammunition.

Privately, officials in the PRI--which has long separated the church from politics--already are attacking Coll's government as dangerously conservative, pointing to the new ordinances as evidence of a neo-fascist, evangelical current in the PAN that could curtail personal freedoms in the nation's capital if the PAN wins the mayoral election there.

It is a charge reminiscent of a smear campaign against Coll when he was running for office two years ago: Anonymous posters and brochures carried pictures of him at campaign rallies with swastikas superimposed on the photographs. His victory brought the first opposition government to a city that had been ruled by the PRI since 1929.

During an interview last week at Guadalajara's historic City Hall--the Catholic Church's state headquarters during Spanish colonial rule--Coll conceded that his new ordinances may be used by the PRI as campaign fodder nationwide during the months ahead.

But he insisted that some of his official acts have been deliberately and deeply misunderstood. At the core of the new ordinances, he said, is an attempt not only to "promote human dignity" but also to define and codify public infractions and punishments to prevent police shakedowns.

"Before, police would arrest a drunkard on the street, take his money and let him out on the street again," Coll said. "Then the police would catch him again, and since he didn't have any money, maybe they took his watch. Now, a drunkard can only be arrested if someone files a formal complaint."

The "abnormal sex" ordinance is among the most controversial of the new measures. Critics view it as an assault on Guadalajara's gay population and say it and other provisions are part of an attempt to legislate morality.

Specifically, the ordinance bans "public practices that imply the development of an abnormal sex life." A separate ordinance makes it illegal "to conduct sexual relations or obscene exhibitionist acts in streets, public places or vacant land."

The vague wording has raised fears that the measure could be used selectively against homosexuals, who have been singled out for police abuses in the past. But Coll said that is not the intent of the law and insisted he is not trying to legislate people's behavior.

"Regarding the sexual acts, there are many critics," Coll said. "But you tell me, in what country is it permitted to conduct sexual acts in public places or on public town squares? The act of making love between a man and a woman, two women or two men, here in front of us on that bridge, well, it's illegal. . . . If they want to do it in their homes or in a hotel, I don't care."

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