Mexico leftists block foreign banks in protest
By Lorraine Orlandi
2 hours, 19 minutes ago

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Leftist protesters blocked access to foreign banks in Mexico on Wednesday to protest what they said was election fraud while judges and troops oversaw a partial recount that could decide July's presidential vote.

Supporters of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador surrounded main offices in Mexico City of U.S.-based Citigroup's Mexican unit Banamex, Bancomer bank owned by Spain's BBVA and British giant HSBC. They closed them down for several hours.

Lopez Obrador, a fiery anti-poverty campaigner, narrowly lost the July 2 presidential vote to conservative ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon.

He says many votes for him went untallied while others were stolen from ballot boxes, and is demanding a recount of all 41 million ballots cast.

Guarded by soldiers, election officials began a recount of votes from 9 percent of polling stations. The partial recount was ordered by a top electoral court in a bid to clear up fraud allegations.

Lopez Obrador's followers have crippled downtown Mexico City for the past 10 days by setting up tents on the main Reforma boulevard running through the business district.

All but one of Mexico's major banks are in the hands of foreign companies and the industry's sell-off has been a symbol of the free market reforms in Mexico disliked by the left.

"It's them who are screwing the nation!" protesters chanted outside the HSBC building, a shiny new skyscraper on Reforma, as dozens of riot police stood guard.

"We're defending the homeland, not the presidency. The homeland is in danger," said Eugenia Rodriguez, 63, a retired teacher from rural San Luis Potosi state.

The protests had a nationalist tinge. Demonstrators draped a banner in Mexico's red, white and green colors over the front entrance to a large Banamex office in the Spanish colonial center of the capital.

"Banamex is really Citigroup, a foreign bank that ransacks the country," said Gerardo Fernandez, spokesman for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.

During the presidential campaign, Lopez Obrador promised to reopen the books on the government's controversial $100 billion bailout of struggling private banks during an economic crisis in the mid-1990s.

The Mexican Banks' Association threatened legal action against the protest organizers.


Judges, election officials and party representatives will spend up to five days checking some 4 million votes at 11,839 voting stations.

One recount at a center in Mexico City was painfully slow, with PRD representatives asking court actuaries to note every detail of proceedings.

It took about an hour to tally a few hundred votes in front of a judge. A leftist official videotaped the recount.

In the first few hours of the recount, officials detected serious irregularities in at least 15 of the 149 electoral districts being checked, said senior PRD figure Ricardo Monreal.

Calderon's campaign says the election was clean.

"In this process, they won't find the votes they didn't get on election day. They won't find the votes they need to win," said German Martinez of Calderon's National Action Party.

If the partial recount shows Lopez Obrador closing the gap on Calderon, it could force the electoral court to open more ballot boxes. If there is no big change in the numbers, Lopez Obrador will come under heavy pressure to give up his fight.

Many fear the power struggle could turn violent, posing the biggest challenge to Mexican democracy since President Vicente Fox won power in 2000 and ended seven decades of one-party rule infamous for corruption and fraudulent elections.

Despite fiery rhetoric and growing tension, there has been no violence at any of the protests and Lopez Obrador insists his campaign will remain peaceful.

Calderon's margin of victory was about 244,000 votes, or just 0.58 percentage points, but he insists it was clean. European Union observers have said there was no major fraud.

The government has tightened Fox's personal security and sent federal police to protect oil installations and the capital's international airport.

(Additional reporting by Karina Nalda and Armando Tovar) ... MlJVRPUCUl