Soldiers, police fortify Mexican Congress as protesters vow to stop president's speech

Friday, September 1st 2006, 3:20 pm
By: News On 6

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Riot police, attack dogs and towering steel barriers sealed off Mexico's congress for miles in every direction Friday as protesters threatened to stop President Vicente Fox from delivering his state-of-the-nation address.

Many feared the deepening political turmoil over the July 2 election to replace Fox could explode into violence.

The president's victory six years ago brought optimism, enthusiasm and an end to 71 years of one-party rule, prompting the world to declare Mexico a true democracy.

But on Friday, exactly three months before Fox steps down, protesters planned at least 16 different marches to the congressional building to try to keep the leader from arriving, according to police. Inside the building, opposition lawmakers said they would do everything they can to stop the president from giving his annual address.

Officials from Fox's presidential guard said hours before the speech that the leader was planning to arrive in a motorcade, ruling out the possibility that he would fly in by helicopter. But it was unclear whether he would reach the podium. He may just drop off his written annual report and go home. Or he could give the speech by video link.

Ruling party lawmaker Gustavo Parra told The Associated Press that there was no doubt the president would arrive to hand in his annual report, but Fox may not give a speech if tensions are too high.

``If conditions are right to give a political speech, I think it would be best,'' Parra said in an interview at the congress building. ``The people want to hear the president.''

Meanwhile, legislators of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party were meeting to plan their protest inside the congressional chambers.

Sen. Carlos Navarrete, the party's Senate spokesman, said Democratic Revolution legislators will act with ``energy'' but ``prudence.'' He said lawmakers wouldn't try to attack Fox.

``We are not vandals, we are representatives,'' he said.

Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has called on his supporters to gather in Mexico City's main plaza before the congressional session for a rally that some fear could turn a mostly peaceful civil resistance movement violent.

Lopez Obrador _ who portrays himself as a champion of the poor _ blames dirty tricks by the president for an official count showing him 0.6 percent behind the business-friendly National Action candidate, Felipe Calderon.

Fox, who denies the allegation, is a former Coca-Cola executive who ushered in economic stability and brought inflation to record lows. But he has been unable to secure a migration accord with the U.S. or significantly reduce poverty, leaving voters frustrated with him even before the fraud allegations.

Thousands of protesters are occupying the capital's center with tent camps draped in banners calling Fox a ``traitor to democracy.'' They are expected to march on Congress after Lopez Obrador's appearance.

They likely won't get far. Authorities have surrounded Congress for up to 10 blocks with multiple layers of steel barriers; attack dogs in cages, ready to be released; and riot police in full protective gear. Entire neighborhoods were sealed off, preventing the city's sprawling markets from opening, and nearby subway stations were shut down.

Police asked residents in the rough Mexico City neighborhood where Congress is located to show identification before allowing them to get to their homes, and they used mirrors and dogs to inspect cars for explosives before allowing them to pass.

The chamber where Fox traditionally addresses lawmakers does not have guards, but legislators can request police to enter if necessary.

The standoff comes six days before the top electoral court must declare a president-elect or annul the July 2 vote and order a new election. So far, the court rulings have favored Calderon. Lopez Obrador has already said he won't recognize the court's decision if Calderon is confirmed.

Calderon won't attend the speech, saying Friday: ``I just ask that all political players act as statesmen.''

Both sides have exchanged angry warnings.

``Security teams better not touch a hair on the heads of our comrades and fellow lawmakers,'' warned Gerardo Fernandez, a spokesman for Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party. Ruling party lawmakers countered that they'll take action if anyone tries to attack the president.

Lopez Obrador and his supporters have already decided to create a parallel government that will rule from the streets.

``The people are the government!'' he told cheering supporters on Thursday.