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Voters in Northern Mexico Voice Skepticism About Ballot

HERE in Sonora, the home state of assassinated Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, voters view this Sunday's national elections with a mixture of bitterness and hope.

Few doubt that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party for which Colosio was the presidential candidate and which has ruled Mexico for 65 years, will win. But people worry about fraud and question whether opposition candidates will win on the local level. Dreams of real, nationwide change, people here say, died with Colosio.

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In Nogales, a booming city of 250,000 on the border with Arizona, the fallen candidate has taken on mythic proportions. On some streets, Colosio posters outnumber those of his replacement, PRI presidential candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.

Opposition candidates grumble that the PRI is exploiting Colosio's death. ``They're feeding off of him like buzzards,'' says Armando Salazar, a city council candidate for the National Action Party (PAN).

Observers say people in Nogales will be voting with their stomachs, meaning they will be voting for the PRI. Thousands of poor people from southern Mexico have moved here in recent years to take advantage of job opportunities in United States-owned factories. Their main concerns are getting sewer lines, electricity, and land rights for their tar-paper shacks. The PRI is seen as the only party capable of delivering such services. One squatter says, ``If the PRI helps us, we'll vote for them. Otherwise, we won't vote.''

Local PRI officials have been playing on these hopes by handing out parcels of land and drilling a water well. PRI officials discount opposition warnings of strikes and protests if the vote is perceived as fraudulent. ``Most of the people are from somewhere else, and they can't complain like people who are from here,'' one official says.

The PAN has better prospects of winning in Agua Prieta, a border town east of Nogales. Although Agua Prieta, population 100,000, is beginning to suffer some of the same problems as Nogales, it still retains the character of a relatively prosperous small town, where everyone knows everyone and people have faith that their vote counts.

The PAN has won two previous mayoralties in Agua Prieta by positioning itself as ``the party of the people.'' Leftist parties hardly seem to exist in this town, even among the working class. The main party of the left, the Democratic Revolutionary Party, has no organization, and although the smaller Work Party is fielding local candidates, a mechanic in a poor neighborhood says with a shrug, ``They're new and no one knows them. We're all PAN-istas here.''

FEW in Agua Prieta expect fraud since all parties plan to send observers to voting sites. ``People have decided to vote and will defend their votes,'' says PAN mayoral candidate Oscar Ochoa. The PRI and the PAN minimize the possibility of violence, though enraged locals burned down city hall after the PRI won a hotly contested election in 1985.

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According to store owner and political observer Jose Cruz, people in Agua Prieta are not afraid to vote against the PRI because they see through the ruling party's rhetoric. They are aware, Mr. Cruz says, of the ``tragedy of Mexico'' - how a country so rich in minerals and other natural resources could have so many desperately poor people.

Despite decades of broken political promises, Cruz says, poor Mexicans have an unending capacity to trust that the future will be better. He points to the stone houses that many squatters are constructing next to their tar-paper shacks. ``Hope is the biggest treasure to those who have nothing,'' he says.

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