Ban on Miniskirts Reflects A Rift in a Mexican City

Is it a loss of personal freedom or propaganda by ruling party?

On a downtown street in Mexico's second-largest city, a seedy bar garishly advertises its two big attractions, table dancing and transvestite shows.

That might seem unremarkable in the average metropolis of 5 million people, but this is Guadalajara, a city run by the right wing of Mexico's conservative National Action Party (PAN). Since miniskirts were reportedly banned from City Hall and a billboard advertising Wonder Bra was forced down by officials last year, Guadalajara has been labeled a new Tehran, with Mayor Cesar Coll Carabias as its ayatollah.

Flames of controversy were fanned when a draft of the city's "police and good government" regulations proposed outlawing swearing at public occasions and banning any public act that might imply an "abnormal sex life." Then, earlier this month, Mr. Coll suggested that any law-abiding person would normally be in his house by 10 p.m., so police would be justified in "momentarily detaining" anyone out after that hour. Within days, news reports convinced Mexicans that Guadalajara was living under a curfew.

Coll says the now-famous examples of his moralizing are lies fabricated and embellished by his political enemies. While there appears to be some truth to this, the controversies have opened the door to attacks from the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which calls PAN an "intolerant" party trying to impose its outdated moral views on people.

Beyond the political implications, Mexican social observers say the debate over personal freedom is a natural consequence of the country's democratization. It is also a sign, they say, of a society coming to grips with a strong questioning of its traditional values.

"Today, people are much more likely to complain and make their views known than they were before," says Victor Ramos Cortes, president of the Human Rights Academy of Jalisco. Recalling that it was a PRI mayor who in 1991 forced a gay and lesbian conference set for Guadalajara to decamp for Acapulco, Mr. Ramos says, "If the current mayor tried to do the same, there would be many more voices against him. That is what has changed in Guadalajara - it's more the society than the government."

Still, there's no hiding the PRI's glee about the new weapon it has to yield against the ascendant PAN. With the PRI facing national elections July 6, where it could lose its congressional majority for the first time in its 70-year rule, the PRI is seizing whatever might derail the PAN's rise. The tolerance issue conjures up old fears about the PAN's ties to the Roman Catholic Church and serves as a convenient foil to criticisms of the PRI's own antidemocratic tendencies.

In some circles, the strategy appears to be working. Never mind that it was PRI officials in Mexico City who this month approved regulations prohibiting prostitutes from wearing "provocative" clothing such as "transparent blouses." And never mind that it is the PRI that replaced police with Army soldiers on Mexico City's streets - a move many legal scholars say violates the Constitution.

With the PAN's candidate for mayor of Mexico City suffering in the polls, and the PRI hovering around the 42 percent it needs to retain a congressional majority, PAN President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa last week called Coll to emphasize the dangers the city's controversies are posing to the party nationally. Earlier, Mr. Caldern acknowledged in the Mexico City daily La Jornada that the PAN had paid "a terrible cost for not having responded in time" to the accusations.

Calderon's call to Coll followed yet another uproar in Guadalajara over physical abuse by police of two reporters who refused to retreat behind police lines during a recent hostage-taking. Coll initially defended the police, but then suspended eight police officials the day of Calderon's call. Noting the journalists were asked by three different officers to retreat, he said, "The case of the journalists can be seen as a violation [of their rights] - or it can be seen as rebellion."

Journalists' rebellion is something Coll says he knows intimately. The press "fabrications" and half-truths started soon after he cut the funding - about $16,000 a month, he says - that the former mayor distributed to some 60 journalists covering City Hall.

The now-famous miniskirt was the first case. A young woman arrived at her post in the city's public works department wearing a very short mini and a "transparent blouse" - in other words, dressed in clothes the PRI in Mexico City now prohibits among prostitutes. Her boss asked her not dress that way, the mayor says, and the press reports of City Hall moralism began.

Another example is the regulation on public swearing. Coll says it is designed to keep athletes or performers from offending the "paying public," but does not restrain the general public - although that's how much of the press covered it.

Yet even if the concerns about personal freedoms are having an effect in Mexico City, they aren't registering in Guadalajara, observers say. "The PAN government is seen as making some mistakes, but they are associated with the party's political inexperience" within Mexico's transition from one-party rule, says Cesar Morones Servin, director of the Center for Opinion Studies, a Guadalajara polling organization.

Despite a continuing social transition, Guadalajara remains a conservative city, Mr. Morones says, which helps explain why the mayor's sometimes ham-handed declarations are pardoned. "When [Coll] says people should be home by 10 o'clock, parents in Guadalajara say, 'This mayor thinks like me.' "

That reality doesn't please everyone. Roberto Ismael Espejo Ramirez, a Guadalajara congressional candidate who says he's gay, says that, while there is less repression of minorities like homosexuals than in the past, "it remains under the table." He says ambiguous laws, such as the now-stricken "abnormal sex" provision, create an atmosphere that police interpret as a green light to abuse and extort money from citizens.

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