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People power rattling politics of Latin America

This week, Mexico was the latest to experience a new civic activism.

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First came the indignation, then the street protests and the disapproving comments from foreign countries. It culminated last Sunday with an estimated 1.2 million Mexicans marching silently through center of the capital. But President Vicente Fox moved to defuse the political crisis Wednesday night by accepting the resignation of his attorney general, who had been leading the criminal case against popular Mexico City Mayor and 2006 presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Chalk up another victory for Latin American people power. In the 1990s, what politicians feared most was apathy. But lately, Latin Americans from Mexico City to Quito, Ecuador - much like the citizens of Ukraine and Lebanon - have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Civic protest is emerging as an increasingly effective - if controversial - political tool.

The power of the megaphone has been amplified by new organizing technologies: e-mail, Internet chat rooms, and text messages make it easier to contact, inspire, and bring people together quickly. The pro-López Obrador rally in Mexico City Sunday, for example, was coordinated via e-mail, with smaller protests in Los Angeles, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Paris. The ever-larger demonstrations are mostly peaceful, usually self-controlled, always televised - and more often than not successful.

"This is something new, if only in terms of the breadth, strength, and frequency of these movements lately," says Laura Carlsen, Mexico representative for International Relations Center, a civic-advocacy group. "Latin America's populations are increasingly looking for options and have decreasing patience with the promises of the past ... especially economic ones."

Seeds of a protest

Yesterday, Elena Poniatowska, one of Mexico's best-known contemporary writers, awoke with a smile. Mr. López Obrador had turned up a month ago on her doorstep in a faded colonial neighborhood and asked for help. The leftist politician was in trouble. He needed a team, he explained, to help coordinate demonstrations, and he wanted her, an author who has dedicated her life to capturing the voices of Mexico, on it.

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