MEXICO CITY — An insidious force is threatening the collective peace of mind in Lomas de Chapultepec, the Beverly Hills of this capital city.
The 10-foot walls and the electrified fences that are de rigueur for most homes can't keep the force out, nor can the neighborhood's ubiquitous private security guards. It seeps in, like a noxious vapor: the possibility that a certain leftist politician with a tropical accent might be elected the next president of Mexico in July.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a native of the sultry state of Tabasco and onetime mayor of Mexico City, is the boogeyman of the rich here. Once the clear front-runner, he is now in a tight race with Felipe Calderon, the candidate of the center-right National Action Party. The possibility of a Lopez Obrador victory has some wealthy Mexicans preparing as if for an earthquake or a hurricane.
"If he wins, this country will be ruined. I'll be better off leaving," declared Marta Garcia at the Starbucks in Lomas de Chapultepec, where a cafe mocha and a blueberry muffin cost slightly more than the daily minimum wage of $4.50. "I'll move to Guatemala."
With its main slogan of "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First," Lopez Obrador's campaign has exposed deep class and ethnic tensions in Mexico. Although he's made quiet overtures to the business community and financial markets, wealthy Mexicans and some in the country's business community see him as a dangerous Robin Hood figure who will take from the rich to give to the poor.
The biggest fear of many wealthy Mexicans is Lopez Obrador's vow to toughen tax enforcement to raise the revenue to pay for social programs. Mexico has a reputation in financial circles as a vast, tax-free "enterprise zone" for the rich.
"We have a saying here," Mexico City economist Mario Correa said. "If you pay taxes in Mexico, then you don't have a good accountant."
Guillermo Oropeza, a sales manager for a movie distribution company and resident of Santa Fe, another exclusive enclave here, believes that Lopez Obrador lacks a basic understanding of economics.
"He doesn't have the intellectual capacity to be president," Oropeza said. "He can't win. It would be absurd."
At a campaign stop this month in the state of Jalisco, Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party, insisted that he had nothing against the wealthy. "We are not against businesspeople," he said. "We need businesspeople, and their investments, to create jobs for our people and get our economy moving again."
As mayor of Mexico City from 2000 until last year, Lopez Obrador instituted a variety of public works programs and subsidies for the poor. Most residents saw him as a competent and compassionate administrator of an overpopulated megalopolis beset by social ills: He left office with an 84% approval rating in the city, according to one poll.
But Calderon, once significantly behind, has had considerable success playing on the fears of the wealthy -- and the anxieties of many in the middle class. He has used a series of ads attacking Lopez Obrador to propel himself forward in several recent polls.
"Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico," intoned one of the ads, comparing him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a self-styled populist and the bete noire of Latin American conservatives. Another ad argues, with considerable exaggeration, that Lopez Obrador bankrupted Mexico City with expensive public works projects.
It isn't hard to find executives, Lomas de Chapultepec homemakers and students at elite colleges here who repeat those arguments. A few speak of the candidate and his supporters using the colorful and insulting vocabulary with which the rich talk about the city's poor majority.
In the parlance of the city's "educated society," Lopez Obrador and his followers are nacos, a slur meaning "rube" or "uncultured."
"Only the nacos, the people who are dying of hunger, will vote for him, just so they can get everything for free, instead of working to make this country better," a man who identified himself as Andres Lavoisere wrote on a Mexican blog recently.
The slang word turns up in thousands of Web postings about Lopez Obrador, along with a slew of conspiracy theories that "prove" he is the candidate of social anarchy and collapse.
One widely circulated e-mail argues that leaders with Lopez in their names have always brought bad fortune to Mexico. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna lost Texas and California in the 19th century. Jose Lopez Portillo presided over a period of hyperinflation in the 1980s and nationalized the banking system.
"Lopez Obrador closes this circle of evil," the e-mail warns. He is "a lying oddball, corrupt and a manipulator of the ignorance and the hope of Mexico's poor."
Carlos Zavala Rocha, a 67-year-old owner of a recording company, recently received an anti-Lopez Obrador joke in his e-mail, a fictional dialogue between two children on the playground of a Mexico City prep school.