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This Watchdog Has A Bodyguard


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THIS WATCHDOG HAS A BODYGUARD

It isn't easy to be an election watchdog when you're watching your back for a possible assassin's bullet. But that's exactly what Sergio Aguayo is doing. Aguayo, 46, one of the top coordinators of Civic Alliance, a coalition of 435 grassroots groups that are monitoring Mexico's Aug. 21 election, received a chilling, typewritten death threat a few months ago warning him not to go too far in his campaign for fraud-free elections. Taking the threat seriously, he accepted a government offer of protection and is now accompanied 24 hours a day by three armed bodyguards.

Elections in Mexico are serious business, but this year's presidential vote is especially charged with tension. The assassination in March of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate Lus Donaldo Colosio established a precedent for violence that others cannot afford to ignore. And Aguayo's mission--to prevent the kind of widespread fraud that has kept the ruling PRI in continuous power for 65 years--is highly visible. "There are days when I feel very anguished," Aguayo says, sitting on a desk in Civic Alliance headquarters. "An entire regime, an entire political system is disappearing, and we know that its members are resisting the demise."

The Civic Alliance is trying to guarantee fair campaigning as well as fair balloting. Amid complaints that Mexico's progovernment television network favors PRI candidates, the alliance's weekly analysis of TV-news coverage has forced broadcasters to give more airtime to opposition candidates. By election day, Aguayo hopes to train as many as 12,000 people as official election observers. They will monitor the vote at 2,600 of the country's 96,000 ballot boxes, especially in rural areas where local caciques, or political bosses, have traditionally delivered overwhelming victories to the PRI. At least 13 other civic groups are also planning to send observers into the field on election day, including the Mexico City Rotary Club and the Mexican Employers' Confederation, a leading business group. By some estimates, there may be as many as 150,000 Mexican observers watching the vote--plus several hundred foreign "visitors," who will be allowed to monitor the electoral process without making any official judgments on it.

"SKEPTICAL" VOTERS. To Aguayo, this is proof that Mexicans finally are gaining control of their society after years of PRI domination. There are today more than 400 grassroots organizations aimed at defending housing rights, the environment, and most recently, electoral rights. Civic Alliance was formed after last November's controversial gubernatorial balloting in Yucatn state, when it became apparent that the only way to combat fraud was to have election observers on hand.

Aguayo, a professor at the Colegio de Mexico whose specialty is U.S. foreign policy and security issues, compares Mexico's struggle to achieve free elections with the U.S. civil rights crusade. "The rise of civil society in a country takes years," Aguayo reflects. "When you study history, you realize that big historic moments are made up of many small moments. I know that what we're doing right now could have a big impact on Mexican history."

Aside from election observers, at least nine organizations plan to carry out "quick count" tallies of the balloting to compare with official voting returns. The Mexican Chamber of Radio & TV Networks has employed prominent U.S. pollster Warren Mitofsky, who has monitored American elections for the networks for 27 years and who also has undertaken quick counts in Russia and the Philippines. "I'm amazed by how skeptical Mexicans are about the validity of poll-taking and about the election results themselves," Mitofsky exclaims. "I've never seen such skepticism anywhere in the world." That's because Mexico has a long history of unbelievable outcomes. But with groups such as Civic Alliance watching, all that could be changing.Geri Smith in Mexico City


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