Mexico's leaders find ally in cult

Sun Journal

Coercion: Expelled residents of Nueva Jerusalem say the ruling PRI party overlooks the religious village's excesses because it delivers votes.

January 20, 1999|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NUEVA JERUSALEM, Mexico -- Andrea Hernandez remembers that at election time, leaders of this religious village would say they had been talking with the Virgin.

The Virgin, they said, wanted the people to vote for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has run Mexico for the past 70 years. Village leaders would hold classes on how to vote. "They told us that the flag comes from the Holy Virgin," Hernandez says. "They said that the PRI is the party of the Holy Virgin."

So in every election, the people in Nueva Jerusalem voted, as a bloc, for Mexico's ruling party.

Nueva Jerusalem is the site of one of Mexico's best-known cults. The village, in the southern Pacific coastal state of Michoacan, was founded in 1979 to praise the Virgin of Guadalupe at the site where the Virgin is believed to have appeared to a peasant woman six years earlier.

It was formed by an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest named Nabor Cardenas. Known as Papa Nabor, he rebelled against the Vatican II reforms the Church instituted in 1967. Mass here is still said in Latin. Papa Nabor teaches that Pope Paul VI, still alive and held hostage in the basement of the Vatican by a group of Masons, Jews and Communists, will re-emerge at the end of the world to save mankind.

Over the years, hundreds of poor families from surrounding states have sold their homes and moved to Nueva Jerusalem to praise the Virgin.

But on June 7, 75 families -- some 300 people, including Andrea Hernandez and many of her relatives, most of them property owners in the community -- were expelled from the village and threatened with beatings. Some of them are now speaking out, the first in many years to speak openly about life within the cult. They describe a community increasingly reliant on violations of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties to keep members in line.

The families say that state authorities don't enforce the constitution there because the village delivers votes for the PRI -- on orders from both the Virgin and Lazaro Cardenas, a beloved former president of Mexico (1934-1940), with whom leaders also claim to have regular conversations.

Nueva Jerusalem may be a fringe religious sect, but it is also a swing bloc in its region, tipping the scales for the PRI in local races. It is an example of how the party uses the government, tax money and the electoral and judicial systems to enforce loyalty and preserve its power.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, formed in 1929, is, in the words of Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer, "the world's most successful authoritarian regime." Mexico has been a one-party state longer than any country in this century except the Soviet Union, and it is only four years short of the Soviet Communists' longevity.

The PRI's key to success is simple: purchased loyalty. The party bought people off, often by allowing loyal members to break the law. "Impunity is the element that lubricates the Mexican political system," says Araceli Burguete, a sociologist from the state of Chiapas. "It buys the whole ladder of loyalties that the PRI needs."

Cracks are showing in the regime's edifice, however. Party discipline is weak, and opposition parties are growing. But the PRI remains strong in rural Mexico, where it relies on myriad arrangements and deals. One of these is the party's relationship with Papa Nabor's sect.

The PRI was as indifferent to Nueva Jerusalem as the rest of Mexico was for the first nine years of the community's existence. Isolation ended in 1988 with the growth of political competition in this poor and isolated part of Michoacan. The rising opposition is the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose leader, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, is a native of Michoacan.

In the municipio, or county, of Turicato, where Nueva Jerusalem is located, the margin of victory by either party over the past nine years has been only a few hundred votes -- hence Nueva Jerusalem's new importance to the PRI.

In 1990, the PRI won the county presidency and a state legislator's seat based on the Nueva Jerusalem bloc. In 1995, the opposition's Pedro Reyes won the presidency when Nueva Jerusalem's ballot boxes were delivered late to voting authorities. Reyes sued and had all the votes -- roughly 1,200 -- annulled. He won by about 500 votes. "If that hadn't happened, I'd have lost," he says.

Before last November's election, the PRD asked the state electoral commission to withdraw ballot boxes from Nueva Jerusalem. It refused. Final score: 1,200 to 6 for the ruling party. The six votes for the PRD candidate are believed to have come from election observers.

"The conditions for a free and secret vote don't exist there," says Reyes. "There are other communities where [the PRI] beats us 2-1 or 3-1, or where there are votes for other parties. But here you can clearly see there's coercion."

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