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Elections Open Peacefully in Troubled Mexican State

October 6, 1996

CHILPANCINGO, Mexico (AP) _ Elections testing the ruling party’s grip on local power went peacefully Sunday in the southwestern state of Guerrero, after thousands of soldiers hunting rebels retreated to their barracks.

Troops in olive drab, who have virtually occupied some isolated communities, were to remain in their camps until after polls closed Sunday night. For the first time in months, no armored vehicles patrolled state highways.

The temporary retreat, which began Saturday evening, eased worries about possible election-day violence in Guerrero, where the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, first emerged June 28.

The threat of guerrilla war has driven the campaigns to elect 76 mayors and an all-new 28-member state congress.

Disenchantment with the government has run high in this impoverished state since police massacred 17 local men in June 1995 in the mountains above Acapulco. The EPR first appeared in Guerrero on the anniversary of the killing.

State officials said voting went peacefully at the state’s 3,479 polling sites.

Though an opposition party activist was found knifed to death Sunday morning in the town of Altamirano, Gov. Angel Aguirre denied that the slaying was connected to the election.

The independent watchdog group Civic Alliance said it received reports of numerous voting irregularities, including allegations of vote buying by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in the large cities of Iguala and Acapulco.

There were also reports of armed policemen at voting booths in Chilapa municipality, despite government promises not to intimidate voters.

But poll workers were confident that the elections would not see major disruptions.

``I don’t think we are going to see any problems today, at least not here,″ said Eustolia Carrera Lorenzo, precinct president in Acatlan, a community of some 4,000 people in the municipality of Chilapa.

Carrera said she expected a low turnout in Acatlan, not because of fears of violence but because people don’t trust the government. ``Even I am confused about it. I don’t know if voting does any good.″

The president of the State Electoral Council, Miguel Garcia Maldonado, told Mexico’s official news agency Notimex that police and soldiers would not intervene in the balloting unless election officials asked.

Hit-and-run attacks in mid-August by the EPR claimed at least 19 lives in Guerrero and other states in southern Mexico. But the group has promised a cease-fire during the election period.

Fears of a guerrilla war were likely to help Mexico’s ruling party, which has retained power for 67 years in large part because it has maintained political stability over the decades.

High abstention also has tended to favor the ruling party.

Less than half of the state’s 1.3 million registered voters were expected to vote Sunday, the University of Guadalajara’s Center for Opinion Studies said.

The leftist Democratic Revolution Party, the second-largest political force in Guerrero, hoped to regain some of the seats it lost to the ruling party in local elections three years ago while keeping six mayoralties it holds in mostly remote, impoverished areas.

Mexico’s ruling party, which now holds 68 mayoralties statewide, has admitted it expected tough competition in such areas.

The PRI was especially keen to win back Atoyac de Alvarez, just west of the massacre site. Atoyac de Alvarez is the hometown of legendary rebel leader Lucio Cabanas, whose band of 300 armed men battled soldiers here in the 1970s.

The conservative National Action Party, or PAN, hoped to win control of its first municipality in Guerrero state.

All three parties have concentrated efforts on Acapulco, home to about a quarter of the state’s 3 million residents. Its high-rise hotels, malls and discos contrast sharply with most of Guerrero’s communities.

Nearly half of the state’s residents have dirt floors, no plumbing, and no potable water. Guerrero has the nation’s highest illiteracy rate _ 27 percent.

Despite Guerrero’s violent history, Gov. Angel Aguirre has vowed a clean and peaceful vote. He was appointed governor this year after his predecessor, Ruben Figueroa, resigned in the outcry over the massacre.

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