In early April, the Rio Grande bridge between El Paso, Tex., and Ciudad Jurez in Mexico was the site of an unusual protest. Frustrated at the meager financial support Jurez gets from Mexico City, the local mayor, Francisco Villarreal, erected his own makeshift toll booths in front of those of the Mexican government. For three days, traffic backed up for miles as stalwarts from the mayor's opposition National Action Party (PAN) collected tolls from motorists leaving Mexico for the U.S.
Federal police eventually dismantled the structures and arrested Villarreal. But that won't end the growing revolt against the authority of the federal government in Mexico City. From Chiapas in the south to Chihuahua in the north, Mexican businesspeople and politicians are growing bolder in defying the once all-powerful central government and presidency. They are resisting taxes, ignoring central directives, and demanding greater say in how money is spent in their regions. "For a whole century we have suffered from a presidentialism that has destroyed the best opportunities for this country," asserts Vicente Fox, a fiery PAN politician, who is likely to be elected governor of the state of Guanajuato on May 28.
GOOD SHOT. The PAN, a conservative party that caters to the middle class and small business, is both spearheading the demands for decentralization and tapping into the provinces' resentment of the capital's wealth. Aided by growing anger at the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for its mishandling of the economy and by a new intolerance of corruption, the PAN is snapping up control of states and towns. It recently won the important governorship of Jalisco and could win three more this year. The PAN also has a good shot at taking control of Congress in 1997--which would revolutionize Mexican politics by ending the PRI's monopoly on power.
Sensing a big opportunity, the PAN has mapped out a strategy opposing President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len's unpopular austerity program. But Zedillo's push for clean elections benefits the PAN, so it is supporting his efforts to quell the rebellion in Chiapas and to check the PRI old guard.
In the best example of such cooperation, Zedillo has appointed an attorney general from the PAN, Antonio Lozano Gracia, and given him wide latitude in tackling the corrupt judiciary and law-enforcement systems. Both the PAN and Zedillo have gained from Lozano's coups such as the jailing of the brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
But at the local level, Zedillo's relations with the PAN are growing contentious. The states are tired of watching as the federal government builds and profits from hydroelectric dams or megaresorts in their areas but gives them little money to deal with local poverty. The economic crisis has pushed this issue to the forefront, as some governors are demanding the right to raise their own funds and decide how they're spent. Right now, the states have little authority to tax and get a measly 18% of federal revenues. The new PAN governor of Jalisco, Alberto Crdenas, has already led his colleagues, including some from the PRI, in forcing the government to renegotiate $3.25 billion in state debt.
In the months ahead, Zedillo's greatest challenge will be to keep the devolution of power already under way from degenerating into chaos. He probably believes that decentralization and pluralism are the best cures for Mexico's corruption and waste. But the risk is that his ceding control will provide openings for enemies unwilling to accept that one-party rule is near its end.