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Mystery Cartons Open Mexican Pandora's Box

Ruling party reformers put 'democracy' above party unity as discontent brims over

MEXICANS have been speculating for months on whether the Revolutionary Institutional Party's (PRI) hard line was assassinating the party's brightest stars to preserve its hierarchy and privileges. Now the party's reformist wing appears to be striking back.

At a protest rally earlier this month in Mexico City's Constitutional Square, a truck driven by two unidentified men dropped off 16 boxes of expense receipts and other papers. At the time, no one thought the drop-off equaled a declaration of war.

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But the boxes purportedly contain proof of massive illegal campaign spending on a ruling-party gubernatorial campaign last year. It's the clearest evidence yet that Mexico's PRI, which has ruled Mexico for 65 years, has disintegrated into an internal war.

Barring a gargantuan fabrication of documents by outsiders that would defy even Mexican standards, the damning papers - which include check stubs from PRI bank accounts - must have come from forces somewhere within the ruling-party structure. That the men who delivered the boxes said they contained information important to Mexico's "democratic movement" suggests that someone within the party is placing Mexico's political reform above PRI unity.

The receipts and expense ledgers, now in the hands of the federal attorney general, document $70 million in campaign spending by the PRI candidate in the November gubernatorial election in the southeastern state of Tabasco. That's more than 50 times the legal spending limit.

Winning 297,000 votes of a total 497,000 cast, Tabasco Gov. Roberto Madrazo Pintado apparently spent $235 for every vote he received - compared to, say, the dollar-plus Bill Clinton spent per vote in 1992.

But the appearance of massive spending isn't what makes the boxes so intriguing. After all, most Mexicans know the PRI has for decades paid lavishly to keep its political machine running.

And some of the "receipts" have been proven fraudulent. At least two respected journalists who were listed as receiving PRI-paid trips to Tabasco have denied ever receiving anything from the PRI, noting they have never set foot in Tabasco.

More interesting is why, and by whom, the boxes were delivered to Mr. Madrazo's chief election opponent - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

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Mr. Lopez Obrador, a former PRI member who was the left-wing Revolutionary Democratic Party's (PRD) candidate, has maintained since November that the Tabasco race was fraudulent and should be nullified.

Some officials and political observers speculate the June 5 delivery is the work of Interior Minister Esteban Moctezuma, who is responsible for election results and is considered part of the PRI's reform-minded wing.

Largely at Mr. Moctezuma's urging, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon agreed in January to hold new elections in Tabasco - partly as a way to draw the PRD into talks on broader political reform. That plan was aborted, however. Protests by Tabasco's PRI hard-liners promised a political confrontation that Mr. Zedillo, already bogged down in the country's financial crisis, could ill afford.

Whatever the 16 boxes eventually reveal about Mexico's tottering political system, they have already caused political fallout.

During the week of June 15, the country's conservative National Action Party (PAN) joined with the left-wing PRD in calling for Mr. Madrazo's resignation. A group of Mexican intellectuals called on Zedillo to make good on his frequent calls for a Mexico of laws by insisting on the truth about the Tabasco campaign.

After a historic first visit by a PAN official to the PRD headquarters, PAN Secretary General Felipe Calderon Hinojosa said: "The hour has come to take solid political action across the country ... to leave behind forever the traditional political system."

The PAN is seeking PRD support for its drive to have nullified a May 28 gubernatorial race it lost in the state of Yucatan. The PAN claims the PRI used similar tactics to win there.

Whether or not evidence of illegalities in Yucatan's election surface, Mexico's reformers and hard-liners, especially within the PRI, appear to have joined forces.

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