For a year, from may 2004 to may 2005, an arcane process called desafuero dominated the news and all political conversation in Mexico City—and just a few degrees less so in the rest of the country. In Mexico, a desafuero is the removal of a public official’s privileged immunity (fuero). It is a process employed only on rare occasions, when evidence indicates that an official has committed a serious crime. Desafuero charges must be brought before the country’s lower legislative house, the Chamber of Deputies, and must be accompanied by a bill of particulars that would serve as an indictment.
On May 4, 2004, Mexico’s attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, acting on behalf of President Vicente Fox, brought a bill of particulars against Mexico City’s popular center-left mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), along with a request that the Mayor be stripped of his immunity from prosecution.
Along with the loss of immunity, the federal indictment would have forced López Obrador out of office and, had he remained under indictment long enough (or had he been found guilty in a court trial), prevented him from running for president in 2006. Indeed, the barring of his presidential candidacy was a major goal of the desafuero.
Macedo de la Concha’s bill of particulars alleged that in 2001, López Obrador’s municipal government had ignored a judicial order to cease construction of an access road to a public hospital through a piece of land whose ownership was in dispute. Though the road was never built—the city built an alternate road that bypassed the disputed land—construction did not cease immediately upon the judge’s order.
But there were none of the usual corruption or abuse-of-power charges one has become used to in Mexico: no hand in the public till; no selling of high-priced favors; no rigged elections; no disappearance of political opponents. It was a hard sell for Fox’s government and, in the end, the Mexican public refused to buy it.
In addition, the legal and political uncertainty of the process began to seriously destabilize the country’s political, economic and social life. The business community, in particular, began to fear that it would soon suffer from the instability stemming from this perceived attempt to bar a candidate because of a minor, disputed, non-pecuniary infraction. That perception grew when López Obrador began to command a two-digit lead over his nearest competitors and, more significantly, began to summon significant numbers of his followers onto the streets on a fairly regular basis.
It took the Chamber of Deputies nearly a year to consider the charges. On April 7 of this year, 11 months after the charges were brought, the Chamber’s two conservative (though in different ways) parties, Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) and the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), combined to approve the desafuero. Only members of López Obrador’s center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), along with a few minor party deputies voted against.
Two and a half weeks later, on April 24, López Obrador convoked a “silent march” through the streets of Mexico City in opposition to the desafuero. An estimated 1.2 million people took part, making it the largest protest march in Mexico’s protest-laden history. It tipped the scales. Three days after the march, Fox fired Attorney General Macedo de la Concha and called for reconciliation. A week later the new attorney general dropped all the charges. The desafuero had become moot.
López Obrador has now announced that he will step down from the mayoralty of his own accord to run for president. He is not the only presidential hopeful within the PRD but after the mobilizations of the anti-desafuero campaign, he dominates his party and will certainly get its nomination. In an honest count, he is the odds-on favorite to win the presidency next summer.
The PRI might have stayed the course of the desafuero, but the PAN was losing its constituency and had to back down. According to a Mitofsky poll taken just after the desafuero vote in the Chamber of Deputies, 57% of respondents who identified themselves as partisans of the PAN thought AMLO should not be barred from participating in next year’s presidential campaign.
And according to another national poll, taken at the same time, Panistas were evenly divided as to the “justice” of the desafuero. When asked whether the process was “just” or “unjust,” 35% came down on either side of the issue, the rest being undecided. This was remarkable considering the PAN had spent the past year demonizing López Obrador and defining its own identity as a party opposed to a mayor who had supposedly placed himself above the law. Obviously, it failed to make a credible case, even to its own party faithful.
The PRI did not fair as badly. It had no ideological or “democratic” ax to grind. It simply demonstrated that, though temporarily out of power, it remains a force to be reckoned with in Mexican politics.
About The Author
Fred Rosen is one of NACLA’s editors. He thanks Dan LaBotz and Irene Ortiz for helpful comments on this uniquely Mexican event.