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Mexico political deal the stuff of drama

Under an elaborate plan by the nation's chief leftist, peddler Rafael Acosta was to relinquish his new post as a sort of mayor in the capital's most populous district. But then he balked, or has he?

September 13, 2009|Ken Ellingwood

MEXICO CITY — His emblem is a headband dyed the red, green and white of Mexico's flag and emblazoned with his one-word stage name, "Juanito." From the working-class streets where he peddles used clothing and holiday decorations, he muses about running for president.

If anyone has spiced up the drab aftermath of Mexico's July 5 legislative elections, it is Rafael Acosta, an exuberant hawker-turned-activist-turned-politician-turned-spoiler who may end up in charge of Mexico City's most populous borough, which has more people than metropolitan Las Vegas.

For two months, Acosta has been the lead character in an odd political drama that has made Juanito a household name, while providing enough cautionary lessons to rival Aesop's fables.

In the July elections, Acosta was elected chief of the teeming Iztapalapa borough, a kind of mayor in miniature, thanks to a maneuver orchestrated by Mexico's main leftist figure, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Acosta was supposed to be only a bit player in Lopez Obrador's plan, whose main purpose was to block the election of a candidate from a rival wing of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, after a disputed nomination process in the fractious party.

Under the plan, Lopez Obrador urged his supporters in the PRD to vote for Acosta, an ally who ran as a candidate of the fringe Labor Party. The script then called for Acosta to step down, if elected.

According to the plan, Clara Brugada, a former congresswoman in Lopez Obrador's faction, would be put forward as a replacement. Brugada had been disqualified as the PRD candidate less than a month before the election by a federal electoral tribunal that found "irregularities" in the party's primary.

The strategy seemed to work. With Lopez Obrador's backing, Acosta won easily in Iztapalapa, a PRD bastion. Acosta publicly promised to step down after winning.

But it wasn't long before the plan went awry: Acosta started having second thoughts about leaving.

He blamed Brugada, saying she wouldn't answer his condition that at least half the key borough jobs go to his backers. Lopez Obrador warned him not to fall prey to the "siren song" of power.

The Mexican press was there every time Acosta got to mulling whether he should keep the job for himself. The street vendor was suddenly a media sensation. He has assumed the role with gusto.

During a television interview last month, Acosta declared that he didn't need Lopez Obrador or Brugada.

"I would have won with any party by running only as 'Juanito,' " he said. (He adopted the nickname years ago after coaching a youth soccer team in which 11 players were named Juan.)

Acosta said he planned to run for mayor of Mexico City in 2012, and hinted at a possible run for president. "If the people elect me, why not?" he told one journalist.

The drama over whether Acosta would relent -- and the spectacle of a scheme blowing up in the faces of its makers -- has been delicious grist for pundits eager to find a moral to the story.

"Juanito is the little Frankenstein who disowned his creator," commentator Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote.

Acosta is new to electoral politics but long a fixture at leftist protests, including those supporting the claim that the 2006 presidential election was stolen from Lopez Obrador. Acosta noted proudly during the recent campaign that he had appeared, stripped to his underwear, in a Mexican fichera movie, a once-popular genre full of scantily clad women.

If Acosta keeps the job of running Iztapalapa, a crowded place of 1.8 million, he would inherit some of the most difficult problems in Mexico City, including deep poverty, infrastructure in disrepair and frequent water shortages. But the budget is big, about $280 million this year, and the borough chief makes about $90,000 a year.

Acosta sounded resolute about retaining the job the other day. The swearing-in is Oct. 1.

"The people have spoken," he said during a visit to pray at the famed Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with a battalion of news cameras in tow.

But then Thursday, Acosta stoked the intrigue by meeting with Brugada over lunch. He said the two ate well, but did not reach a deal.

Juanito, vendor-activist-politician-spoiler, also played master of suspense: He promised more news in a few days.

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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