The building that houses the Congress in this city’s grand Zócalo Plaza is ringed by two-meter-tall grilled metal barriers soldered together apparently to thwart a suicide car bomb attack. Behind this metal wall, 3,000 visored robocops–the Federal Preventive Police (PFP, a police force drawn from the army)–and members of the elite Estado Mayor, or presidential military command, form a second line of defense. Armed with tear gas launchers, water cannons and reportedly light tanks, this force has been assigned to protect law and order and the institutions of the republic against left-wing mobs that threaten to storm the Legislative Palace–or so the president informs his fellow citizens in repeated messages on national television.
No, the president’s name is not Pinochet, and this military tableau is not being mounted in a banana republic or some African satrapy. This is Mexico, paragon of democracy (dixit George Bush), Washington’s third-largest trading partner and the eighth-leading petroleum producer on the planet. Seven weeks after the flawed July 2 presidential election, no winner has been officially declared. One of the elite military units assigned to seal off Congress is indeed titled the July 2nd Brigade.
The US media seem to have forgotten about the imbroglio just south of its border. Nonetheless, the phone rings and it’s New York telling me they just got a call from their man on the border who said Homeland Security is beefing up its forces around Laredo in anticipation of upheaval further south. The phone rings again and it’s California telling me they just heard on Air America radio that US Navy patrols were being dispatched to safeguard Mexican oil platforms in the Gulf. The left-wing daily La Jornada runs a citizen-snapped photo of army convoys carrying soldiers disguised as farmers and young toughs. Rumors race through the seven-mile encampment installed three weeks ago by supporters of leftist presidential challenger Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who have tied up big-city traffic and enraged the motorist class here, that PFP robocops will attack before dawn. The campers stay up all night huddled around bum fires, prepared to defend their tent cities.
The moment reminds many Mexicans of the tense weeks in September and October 1968, just before the Olympic Games were to be begin, when President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz oversaw the massacre of striking students in a downtown plaza not far from where AMLO’s people are now camped out. As many as 300 were killed in the Plaza of Three Cultures, their bodies incinerated at Military Camp Number 1 in western Mexico City. The Tlatelolco massacre was a watershed in social conflict here, and the similarities are sinister–in fact, López Obrador has taken to comparing outgoing President Vicente Fox with Díaz Ordaz.