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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mexico leftists blockade ministry, open toll gates

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Hundreds of Mexican leftists blockaded a ministry and threw open highway toll gates on Tuesday in an escalation of protests against what they say was fraud in last month's presidential election.

It was the first time the demonstrators have disrupted federal facilities in weeks of protests to support candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost the election by 0.58 percentage point to conservative Felipe Calderon.

European Union observers say there was no major fraud and the leftist suffered a setback on Saturday when Mexico's top electoral court rejected a full recount of the vote, ordering a new tally of just 9 percent of polling stations.

Demonstrators waving the yellow flags of Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution blocked the entrance to the agriculture ministry and stopped hundreds of employees from getting to work.

Other protesters swung open toll barriers across highways linking Mexico City with the cities of Cuernavaca, Pachuca and Queretaro and let tens of thousands of commuters drive through without paying during the morning rush hours.

"Don't pay. Keep going, keep going," leftists shouted as they waved smiling drivers past a toll point on the southern edge of Mexico City.

The leftist, who promises to lift millions out of poverty and end privileges for the rich, commands fierce loyalty from his supporters.

"Lopez Obrador represents hope that the country's resources reach every sector and not just a small group like now," said Ildelisa Gonzalez, 47, a teacher from the northern state of Sonora who was protesting outside the agriculture ministry.

Demonstrators there shouted slogans against a North American free trade deal which has hurt many Mexican farmers.


Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of the capital, said on Monday that Mexico would cede more power to the poor "one way or another" but he has vowed protests will be peaceful.

Mexico's financial markets fear widespread disruption from protests, or even violence. Stocks fell slightly on Tuesday and the peso currency was little changed after the U.S. Federal Reserve halted a string of interest rate rises.

Lopez Obrador says the election was rigged by electoral authorities in league with conservative President Vicente Fox. Leftists have paralyzed the center of the capital for more than a week with sit-in protests to demand a full recount.

Mexico has boosted security at the capital's airport and oil installations to prevent disruptive protests.

Lopez Obrador, a former Indian welfare officer, has a long history of leading protests.

Tens of thousands of households in his native state of Tabasco do not pay energy bills, the legacy of a civil resistance campaign he began in the mid-1990s to protest alleged fraud in a governorship election he lost.

Lopez Obrador had promised to curb illegal immigration to the United States by creating more jobs in Mexico.

"If there were jobs here, they would have stayed," said Guadalupe Tapia, 62, a supporter whose two children are working in the United States.
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