AGUA PRIETA, Mexico — In the midst of the worst electoral showing in 68 years by this nation's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party last week, Vicente Teran Uribe is a bright spot--a clear winner and possibly a symbol of the future PRI.
The landslide victory of the 41-year-old businessman, who funded his own campaign for mayor of this border town, came despite--and even with the aid of--a recent U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration report that named him as one of Mexico's 20 top narcotics traffickers.
And therein lies a good illustration of U.S.-Mexican border relations.
Teran's victory can be seen as a kind of referendum on Mexican feelings about the United States and its escalating drug enforcement effort along the border. It also reflects a strong feeling here that Washington, in its zeal to pressure its southern neighbor to crack down on the multibillion-dollar cross-border drug trade, has gone too far in meddling in Mexican politics.
After he won just over 50% of the vote in the field of four, the mayor-elect underscored the lingering bitterness that he and most townsfolk harbor for the big government just on the other side of the chain-link fence between Douglas, Ariz., and Agua Prieta (population 42,272).
Teran denied the DEA allegations. But he couldn't help but appreciate the boost they gave him.
"The lies that were spread definitely helped me . . . because people already knew who Vicente Teran really is," Teran said last week. "Far from alienating people, the allegations angered many and united them more behind Vicente Teran. It strengthened the campaign. And as a result, we see this indisputable and overwhelming triumph."
Even without the benefit of the DEA allegations, Teran had an edge over his three rivals in the local mayor's race. A successful businessman, he went door to door, block to block, offering his hand and the promise, "I'll work for you."
Three years ago, the PRI lost control of this strategic spot on the Arizona border to the conservative National Action Party, or PAN. But as the PRI was losing dozens of legislative and mayoral seats nationwide in the July 6 vote, Teran won. So too did about 40 other PRI mayors in Sonora state.
Teran's victory, during an election in which he could play outsider and criticize the operations of the PAN government here, appeared to prove the theory of Daniel Fierros Noriega. The local PRI president concluded last week: "In order to win, the PRI first has to lose."
The only outstanding problem with this seemingly rosy picture, then, is the DEA's lingering drug-trafficking allegations against the man who now controls a key border town in one of the fastest growing and increasingly violent drug-smuggling routes along the southern U.S. border.
It is not as if Agua Prieta voters didn't know about the DEA allegations. At the peak of Teran's campaign in May, the accusations were published in a DEA document, "Mexico's Top Echelon Traffickers," and in more than a dozen Mexican and U.S. publications in the weeks since.
"Vicente Teran Uribe is identified as a member of a large cocaine distribution organization based in Agua Prieta and Hermosillo, Sonora," the document said. "Cocaine-laden aircraft that originate in Colombia are reported to land on Mexican airstrips at ranches allegedly owned by Teran Uribe, [who] also is believed to be involved in large-scale money laundering."
Within days, the allegations against Teran--who asserts that his fortune came not from drugs but from years of hard work selling satellite dishes--showed up in the opinion polls, boosting his lead a full five percentage points.
Javier Corella Valenzuela, Agua Prieta correspondent for the independent Sonora daily El Imparcial, cited the U.S. drug allegations as a decisive factor in Teran's victory. "The [DEA] allegations were not backed up," he said. "The profile of him was just incomplete, and everyone interpreted the allegations as an effort to hurt him politically.
"But it should also be said that the accusations and their impact did not completely determine the elections. He also had a very strong campaign. He had a better platform, and he had better contact with people."
Reaction north of the border to the outcome of last week's elections further illustrated the dangerous complexities of the relationship between the two neighbors.
The day Teran was proclaimed winner, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution congratulating Mexico for its exercise in democracy. But U.S. officials were concerned about the alleged drug ties of the mayor-elect of Agua Prieta--and also about their impact on future cooperation with him.
"In order to be effective, we have to be able to coordinate and cooperate with the government on the other side of the border," said John L. Koren Jr., agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol in Douglas, Ariz., (population 13,137).