As Mexican Vote Nears, This Town is Oddly Quiet

An unresolved bomb blast and several assassinations have left residents' faith in government shattered

GUADALAJARA, Mexico's third-largest city and generally considered the country's prettiest big town, is these days suffering a glut of political pollution as posters, banners, candidate portraits, and bumper stickers proliferate in anticipation of Feb. 12 state elections.

This unbridled bloom in other parts of the city makes the dearth of campaign exhortations in Guadalajara's Reforma section all the more striking. A modest, mixed residential-industrial neighborhood southeast of the city center, Reforma simply doesn't want to hear about government and politicians any more.

On Rio Candelaria Street, a few signs sport the smiling face of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) gubernatorial candidate, while a scattering of posters trumpet other smaller parties. But ads for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), ubiquitous elsewhere around town, are virtually absent here.

``The few PRI ads that went up were immediately torn down,'' says Lorenzo Cervantes Prado, who owns a combination grocery-hardware store on Reforma's Rio Lejos Street. ``After what they did to us here, we don't want to hear or see anything about them.''

What the PRI ``did,'' or what many Reforma residents hold the governing party responsible for, is the May 1992 underground gasoline blast that ripped through the neighborhood.

The 20-block explosion left more than 200 people dead, hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed or damaged, and sapped what economic vitality the area enjoyed.

Within hours of the 1992 blast, then-Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced an exhaustive investigation. He said the cause would be pinpointed within 72 hours and heads would roll.

But even though locals - who had been smelling and reporting gasoline fumes for months - pointed fingers at a nearby gasoline plant with a pipeline running under their streets, the case was never cleared up.

Although a few officials from the plant were initially jailed, no high heads rolled.

For Reforma residents the blast was a bitter foretaste of the disillusionment that Mexicans have come to feel as other tragedies, all unclarified and unpunished, rocked the country.

In 1993 Guadalajara's Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was assassinated outside the city's airport, and last year two prominent politicians, popular PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and PRI reformer Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, were also gunned down.

Today house reconstruction continues along the Reforma streets that opened like giant faults that May day, some businesses have come back, and the sidewalks and pavement are uncharacteristically clean and new.

But even a brief visit by an outsider reveals that the explosions tore the heart out of what residents assure was a once-bustling community.

``Every year on the anniversary there is a march to City Hall demanding the truth of the explosion, but there is no response, and so people have given up,'' says Evelia Sanchez, whose corner market collapsed in the blast.

``There's no more faith in what the government would tell us anyway,'' she says.

The government has paid to rebuild homes and businesses, Mr. Cervantes notes. But, ``that's so little,'' he adds, ``compared to the moral and spiritual emptiness that remains when the questions of how and why this could happen are unanswered - or answered with lies.''

Many residents say it's no surprise to them now that the case went unresolved, since the gas plant they all consider responsible belonged to the nationalized Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) oil company, and thus to the government. The plant has since been closed and moved out of the city.

``It's terrible, but the majority of people around here also assume the government was responsible for the cardinal getting killed, probably in some drug-trafficking connection, and then there was Colosio,'' says Bertha Sambrano, who runs a one-table sandwich stand under a plastic tarpaulin on Rio Candelaria.

She says the recent peso devaluation and ensuing economic dive only feed the disgust with government.

``Shrimp used to be my specialty here,'' says Ms. Sambrano, who lost her rented house in the blast and had to move out of the neighborhood. ``But now no one can afford it, so I had to stop.''

Truckers milling about the sandwich stand while waiting for a rare call to work at a nearby transport company shrug when asked about the effect of the blast.

Nor do they have much to say about Guadalajara's coming elections. But they all nod when one offers, ``We just want things to change.

``That's why,'' he adds, pointing out a phrase of graffiti on a crumbling brick wall in an adjacent lot left vacant by the blast. It says: ``Guilty, our whole system.''

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