MEXICO CITY – City Hall was literally going to pieces: Carpets were rolled back, floorboards pried up, portraits of Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas pulled down, and the walls stripped back. A nest of wiretap devices and hidden cameras had just been discovered in the offices of Cardenas' second-in-command, and now investigators were dismantling the old colonial edifice to ferret out new bugs.

Insiders insist that the devices found in the office of Secretary of Government Rosario Robles on February 28 were not the first planted to eavesdrop on the activities of the incoming Cardenas government. One hundred days ago, when the first elected mayor of the city (actually, Cardenas' title is “chief of government”) moved into the offices formerly occupied by his predecessor, Oscar Espinosa Villareal, so many bugging devices were discovered that Cardenas immediately vacated the premises and set up camp in a separate building.

The story of the first 100 days of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' crucial experiment in the democratic governance of this, the largest urban entity in the Western Hemisphere, can best be described as the story of a 100-day siege, jointly laid by his many enemies in the long-ruling (69 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and his own left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Throughout the 16 delegations, or boroughs, that jigsaw together this megalopolis, city employees organized by the PRI have declared a series of work stoppages guaranteed to make life miserable for the neighborhoods. In one incident, Pablo Moctezuma Barragan, a much-respected leftist who is Cardenas' chief in the Azcapotzalco delegation, was pelted with overripe tomatoes.

And downtown at City Hall, even as the bugs whirred away inside, demonstrators have daily swarmed on the esplanade of the great zocalo plaza just below the ornate old building – mostly PRI-istas but sometimes disaffected PRD-istas. On March 6, the protests breached the gates when a PRI strong-arm squad that operates under the name of the “Territorial Movement” invaded City Hall. Their beef: the allegation by the Cardenas brain trust that the office wiretaps were planted by another former mayor, Manuel Aguilera, the PRI's Mexico City leader.

It was the first violent clash between the new government and the new opposition, and just as under the PRI governors, the riot squad forcibly ejected the demonstrators and arrested their leaders. The skirmish testified to the role reversal that Mexico City politics have undergone in the past 100 days – it used to be the Cardenas supporters who were on the butt end of the police batons.

PRD control of City Hall has created surreal transformations. During the campaign, which Cardenas won by an unprecedented 2-1 landslide, the normally stone-faced candidate suddenly acquired a broad smile. But the tall, dewlapped mayor, the son of one of Mexico's most beloved presidents, does not smile much these days as he dourly elbows his way through the demonstrators who always seem to be milling about in front of City Hall whenever Cardenas goes out to lunch.

For other longtime leftists, the reversal has been more extreme. One January afternoon, Arnaldo Martinez Verdugo, once head of the Mexican Communist Party and Cardenas' chief in the Coyoacan delegation, sent the police to evict poor squatters from a site reserved for an exclusive shopping mall to be constructed by the French commercial giant Auchan.

One of the more uncomfortable obligations of the new government has been to enforce laws against ambulantes – the capital's ubiquitous street vendors. Thousands were licensed for the Christmas season, but tradition holds, and established merchants insist that the ambulantes retreat once the holidays are over. Driving them off the street in January proved a painful process – the riot squad has sometimes been called out to clear the public way.

But the Cardenas administration cannot really crack down on the popular economy, the only source of income for tens of thousands of poor families. The new mayor is leftist in conviction, and owes much of his political strength to the urban popular movement, a coalition of the disenfranchised dating back to the 1985 earthquake that proved pivotal in the 1988 presidential election, and again in 1997. Indeed, Cardenas has been much more permissive than his predecessor in allowing the street vendors to work – the underground economy is particularly visible in the subway, where sometimes three ambulantes at a time invade the cars.

Not all in the new leadership are finding their jobs so distasteful. Salvador Martinez Della Rocca, a.k.a. El Pino, legendary leader of the 1968 student movement and now chief delegate in Tlalpan, has exercised his authority with relish – against the PRI. Della Rocca ordered the Institutional Party's National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CNOP) to vacate a building it has occupied rent-free for the past 10 years – the delegate wants to install a street kids' shelter on the site. The CNOP immediately launched an angry march to the zocalo. The PRI has rent-free use of at least 10 additional city buildings – while the Cardenas administration is forced to rent office space to house city workers.


The sabotage of the new government began long before Cardenas took over December 5. Naked subterfuge by the outgoing Espinosa regime stripped offices of computers, typewriters and furniture, reports popular detective writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, who is chronicling the Cardenas administration. Whole fleets of cars are missing or disabled – Taibo discovered several city vehicles whose motors had apparently been sold off. More critically, key computer files seem to have been erased by the former administration. “They even took the toilet paper,” despairs the writer.

Indeed, under Espinosa (1994-97), the city's debt rose from 2 billion to 11.5 billion pesos. City services increased accordingly, while revenues, assaulted by economic crisis, declined precipitously. According to Taibo's investigation, Cardenas inherits a system in which only 50 percent of real estate taxes collected every year actually reach the treasury – the rest is presumably siphoned off by underlings before the funds reach city coffers. Preliminary accounting of 1995 city finances yielded an $800 million shortfall, and 100 Espinosa-appointed officials are under investigation, according to the head of the Mexico City Legislative Assembly committee delving into the previous administration's maladroit bookkeeping.

Budgetary inquiries are new ground for Taibo, whose Hector Belascaran Shayne mysteries are popular favorites here, but the writer is a leftist and a Cardenas admirer who finds drama in the advance of a democrat in a city so accustomed to dictatorship. Taibo is reading books about Stalingrad “to understand how you can run a city under siege . . .”

In a 38-page report issued February 4, Cardenas characterized the condition in which he received the city from Espinosa as “deplorable.” Nonetheless, Espinosa, currently under investigation for his freewheeling administration of the national development bank prior to his stint at City Hall, was immediately appointed secretary of tourism by President Ernesto Zedillo.

Another frontline in the low-intensity war against the Cardenas administration is the justice system. Compelled to obey federal court orders, Cardenas' police have been obliged to enforce 1,800 previously frozen evictions, uprooting hundreds of low-income tenants and putting their furniture in the street. Upcoming in October: A revision of rent laws will unfreeze controls for 30,000 low-income families in the old quarter, and new procedures will make it easier to obtain evictions. The increase in court-ordered evictions seems directed at separating Cardenas from his most solid source of support.

Along with the wiretaps, the staged demonstrations, and the sacking of city property and revenues during 70 years of PRI governance, has come a highly synchronized media campaign that seeks to blame the new administration for the endemically chaotic state of Mexico City. Both major networks, longtime allies of the ruling party, zoom in on the capital's most critical quandaries and fault Cardenas' fledgling government for not having fixed them yet. PRI and right-center National Action (PAN) politicos are frequently interviewed, asking when Cardenas is going to begin to govern the city – although the new opposition obstructs his efforts to do so. “One million are without water today while Cardenas is off in Monterrey,” scowled the Televisa afternoon news recently – a cheap shot because the mayor was in Monterrey looking at a sewer system, and because a million people are waterless every day in Mexico City.

To be sure, the Cardenas administration has inflicted great pain upon itself during the first 100 days of its gestation – much of it stemming from rebellion within the ranks of the PRD majority in the Mexico City Legislative Assembly. Seriously divided into diverse political currents, PRD legislators sided with the PRI against Cardenas in scuttling five of his 16 candidates to serve as chief in the city's various districts.

And though public safety is the most acute anxiety of Mexico City residents, Cardenas has not been well served by Samuel del Villar, his hand-picked district attorney. Del Villar's choice of a director for the judicial police backfired immediately when Jesus Corolla proved to have a shady record (drugs and torture) and was forced to resign during Cardenas' first week in office. The D.A.'s competence was again called into question after a U.S. real estate executive, John Peter Zarate of Cushman & Wakefield, was murdered during a taxi holdup by a gang that came to be celebrated as “la banda de Chucky.” While Alfonso “Chucky” Gonzalez probably shot Zarate last December 15, so eager were del Villar's agents to obtain a quick confession that they apparently beat gang members to a pulp. The judge, asserting that the beatings put the confessions in doubt, released Chucky and his banda – a liberation that did not much please the U.S. Embassy and one which sparked snide headlines for weeks.


Nor has public confidence in Cardenas' police been bolstered by monthly claims that crime is decreasing in Mexico City – common experience contradicts del Villar's conclusion.

As if he did not have enough enemies, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is engaged in a war – of protocol – with the Mexican army. One of the mayor's first acts was to remove active military officers from a police force badly demoralized by the appearance of a combined military-civil death squad within its ranks that was deemed responsible for the murder of six youths last September. Cardenas' support of demonstrations in favor of peace in Chiapas and an end to militarization in that southern state has not endeared him to the secretary of defense. When the new chief of Mexico City's government showed up for annual Loyalty Day ceremonies, he was seated next to an out-of-favor ex-PRI president. In retaliation, Cardenas failed to attend the military's Armed Forces Day fete.

Breaking the siege of City Hall seems clearly linked to reaching out to the vast public that put Cardenas in office last July. But translating votes into participation in city government has proved difficult. Cardenas, while a very hands-on mayor who loves putting on a hardhat and visiting works in progress (he is a civil engineer), is also very much an old-style caudillo whose top-down authoritarian style does not inspire much input from the grassroots.

The temptation must be strong for Cardenas to yield to siege mentality and lock himself up inside City Hall while demonstrators continue to mill about on the zocalo and the afternoon papers shout “Caos!” in big black headlines.

Yet Cardenas is a certain candidate for the presidency of Mexico in 2000; what happens in Mexico City during the next 33 months could prefigure the prospects for democratic transformation nationwide. With a thousand days remaining in his three-year term, he and his party must begin opening doors at City Hall if he is to create “a city for everyone,” as his campaign slogan chimed.

LA Weekly