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2006-07-12

Florida Con Salsa: Investigative Reporter Greg Palast Reports on Voter Fraud in Mexico’s Presidential Election

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In Mexico, populist candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador released a preliminary video yesterday of what he says proves he was cheated out of last week’s presidential election. In a video shot in the central state of Guanajuato, the footage shows an apparent supporter of Calderon’s National Action Party stuffing a ballot box on the day of the elections. Investigative reporter Greg Palast travels to Mexico City to report on the disputed election. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the Mexican presidential elections. Last week, election authorities announced that conservative candidate Felipe Calderón, a former energy minister, had defeated Andres Manuel López Obrador by a razor slim margin. This was after electoral officials recounted ballot tallies from the initial vote. The recount showed that Calderon won the presidency by the closest margin in Mexico’s history–around two-hundred-twenty-thousand votes of forty-one million cast–or just over half a percentage point.

But Lopez Obrador has refused to concede citing electoral fraud. On Sunday, Lopez Obrador and his supporters filed a request for a full vote-by-vote recount of the election. They have also called for supporters to begin marching on the capital today and to join up for a huge march in Mexico City on Sunday.

Yesterday, Obrador released a preliminary video of what it says proves he was cheated out of last week’s Presidential election. In a video shot in the central state of Guanajuato, the footage shows an apparent supporter of Calderon’s National Action Party stuffing a ballot box on the day of the elections. Mexico"s Federal Electoral Court will review the case, which includes videos, campaign propaganda and electoral documents. The court has until September 6 to declare a winner. Meanwhile, yesterday Felipe Calderon announced his plans for a victory tour through Mexico.

Investigative reporter Greg Palast was in Mexico City to cover the story. He filed this report.

  • Greg Palast reports from Mexico City. Special thanks to Rick Rowely and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigative reporter Greg Palast was in Mexico City to cover the story. He filed this report.

GREG PALAST: July 3rd, I was in my office in London when the phone rang. It was Mexico City. I was told, "Take a look at the Mexican papers." The exit polls in the presidential election there showed a clear win for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left wing’s candidate for president, but the official count gave the election to George Bush’s ally, Felipe Calderon, of the rightwing ruling party, the PAN. Hmmm. Exit polls that don’t match the official vote count. I had heard that story before. In Ohio in 2004, John Kerry led Bush in the exit polls, and in 2000, Al Gore won in the Florida exit polls. But in both cases, George Bush won in the official count.

So I booked the first flight out to Mexico City to answer the question: Did Felipe Calderon of the conservative PAN, the party in power, win the presidential election fairly or was this just another Florida con salsa?" The official numbers just didn’t add up. So my first stop was to meet one of Mexico’s top numbers experts, statistician Victor Romero of Mexico’s National University. Dr. Romero had charted the official government elections returns from each of Mexico’s 113,000 voting stations.

VICTOR ROMERO: The way I did this was, a friend of mine, that he had the results second by second.

GREG PALAST: Well, randomly, this can’t happen.

VICTOR ROMERO: Can’t happen.

GREG PALAST: So what did happen then? Beside — there’s a miracle here.

VICTOR ROMERO: It’s a miracle.

GREG PALAST: How did the miracle occur?

VICTOR ROMERO: How did the miracle occur? I don’t know.

GREG PALAST: On a computer printout, Dr. Romero showed how the official tallies matched the exit polls, with challenger Lopez Obrador ahead by 2% all night. That is, until the very end, when several precincts came in for the ruling party by 10-to-1, and then 100-to-1, putting their candidate Felipe Calderon over the top, literally in the last minutes. The doctor found that statistically improbable.

VICTOR ROMERO: We reached the point I said, "It’s over." But then, from 71% ’til the very end, there was not a single moment in which the difference from one report to the next became bigger.

GREG PALAST: So it didn’t change at all. Just was perfect.

VICTOR ROMERO: Perfect, perfect. And so we just couldn’t believe it. I mean, it fell — with 5% to go, it fell one full point.

GREG PALAST: So then, what happened?

VICTOR ROMERO: Another miracle. Statistically, it’s a second miracle. But now it is —

GREG PALAST: Well, are you a religious man?

VICTOR ROMERO: I’m not a religious man.

GREG PALAST: So you don’t believe in miracles?

VICTOR ROMERO: No, but other people do, so, you know. They say that it works even if you don’t believe in them, so.

GREG PALAST: The results may not seem so miraculous if you take a look at these voter sheets. This is from a district in Guanajuato, which shows that Calderon picked up 192 votes, but Obrador, the challenger, got only 12. And here’s how this miraculous total can be explained. We were given a videotape of a poll worker, seen here stuffing ballots into the unguarded cardboard ballot box. Mexico has virtually zero ballot security in rural areas. There is no system for accounting for unused paper ballots. Stuffing them into the cardboard boxes is absurdly easy.

Despite the evidence of ballot stuffing, the conflict with exit polls and the miraculous returns, the Federal Election Commission in Mexico named Calderon the winner by a margin thin as a tortilla, by less than 0.5%. The rush to announce a winner was all the more surprising given the wave of other reported irregularities. This is Cesar Yanez who directed the campaign for Lopez Obrador’s party, the PRD. He noted there were 300,000 fewer votes for president than for senator, a drop-off that voting experts say never happens without fraud. Yanez guessed maybe they ate their votes.

The Federal Election Commission’s rush to announce a winner caught my attention because of the astonishingly high pile of supposedly uncountable votes: nearly one million blank unreadable ballots, four times the alleged margin of victory. The smell of Florida was unmistakable. In the 2000 U.S. election, Florida’s Secretary of State Katherine Harris stopped a hand count of 179,000 supposedly blank ballots. Mexico’s Electoral Commission, taking the exact same stance as Harris, is refusing to have a public hand count of those supposedly blank one million ballots.

Yanez noted that the commission agreed to open a fragment of 1% of the ballot packets. In most cases, ballots that were totaled as blank were, in fact, votes for Obrador. Each box opened produced enough newfound votes for Obrador that opening all the boxes should statistically change the outcome of the election. But all the boxes won’t be opened. The ruling party, the PAN, and the Electoral Commission refuse a full public recount, and the government says that it’s over.

Felipe Calderon and his ally George Bush say it’s all over, but there are hundreds of thousands of people here who say, not until all the votes are counted one by one. On Saturday, half a million Obrador supporters filled the capital to make one simple demand: voto pro voto, count every vote.

We’ve come here to the ruling party’s compound to ask Felipe Calderon exactly why he doesn’t want to count all the votes.

"Mr. Calderon, why not count all the ballots?" would be a question from England.

Calderon gave me the brush-off, but the man tipped to be his foreign minister, Arturo Sarukhan, defended his man.

ARTURO SARUKHAN: There is a process called the rule of law in this country, and it is not to be used willy-nilly to bend depending on whether you fancy the results of an election or you don’t fancy the results of an election. What we have said is that we are convinced that what was not obtained through the ballot box should not be obtained through the streets.

GREG PALAST: But in Washington, President Bush was too impatient for the full vote count. While the European Union was waiting for a full legal review, Bush called Calderon to congratulate him on his victory, and evidence suggests that George Bush may have secretly tried to help in that victory. We have obtained from U.S. FBI files a copy of a secret government contract with a private firm, ChoicePoint of Alpharetta, Georgia. ChoicePoint, you may recall, is the company that provided a list to Katherine Harris in 2000, which permitted her office to wrongly scrub thousands of African Americans from Florida voter rolls.

ChoicePoint, this document indicates, was back in the vote list business in Mexico at the request of the Bush administration. While the cover of their September 2001 contract says it is to gather intelligence for counterterrorism investigations, the still classified appendix, which we have, clarifies that the contract is limited to gathering citizen files and voter lists of Latin American nations, specifically those nations which have leftist presidents or leading leftist candidates for president.

The company, we have learned, did, in fact, obtain the voter files of Venezuela and Mexico for the FBI. It’s difficult to imagine how these files will help in the war on terror, but they can be very useful in influencing Latin American elections. And, indeed, we filmed voters in Mexico who found themselves mysteriously scrubbed from voter rolls.

SCRUBBED VOTER: I wasn’t able to vote. I wasn’t on the list. I waited seven hours here for nothing, seven hours in the rain, seven hours hungry, just so the electoral representatives could laugh at me. The Electoral Commission is a real fraud. I tell you that as a Mexican.

GREG PALAST: In Mexico City, I met with an Obrador supporter who discovered that, in fact, the ruling party, the PAN, had somehow got a hold of the voter files. She discovered this information after she obtained the secret passwords to the party’s website from a whistleblower. We were not allowed to film her face.

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: I can’t tell you how they were using this information, but I can assure you this is illegal. This is a crime.

GREG PALAST: Are you aware of the fact that a contractor for George Bush and the U.S. FBI obtained all these citizen files?

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: Yes, ChoicePoint was the name of the company who got that. Yes, we were aware of that.

GREG PALAST: But we don’t know where this information comes from?

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: We know that it’s in the official page of the candidate.

GREG PALAST: But they’re not supposed to have these for these purposes?

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: No, no, no. They’re not supposed to have it. And, of course, they are by no way supposed to use it. That’s a crime.

GREG PALAST: But it could be very helpful.

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: Well, much more than we ever thought.

GREG PALAST: She showed me on a computer how to get into the hidden pages of the PAN’s website.

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: This was Calderon’s page, right? If you go into the user hildebrando117 and you typed in the password, you could type your name, any name. You could find all her information, where she lives, where she stay, or everything. These are the electoral votes.

GREG PALAST: Our source believes that the vote-counting software was key to the election victory. She showed us proof that the candidate’s brother-in-law was paid to write the vote-counting software.

Was the election stolen?

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: Yes, we can be sure of that. The election was definitely stolen. And people should be there counting the votes one by one. Democracy doesn’t have a time limit.

GREG PALAST: Thank you very much for your time.

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: Thank you.

GREG PALAST: We promise not to show your face.

OBRADOR SUPPORTER: Thank you.

GREG PALAST: Why would the Bush administration be so concerned about the presidency of Mexico? There are many issues, but one stands out. It’s the oil.

DEMONSTRATOR 1: We have to fight to defend our oil so they don’t take it to another country. Lopez Obrador is going to fight for what we haven’t been able to fight for.

DEMONSTRATOR 2: We have to save our oil. The oil is ours. It belongs to Mexicans.

GREG PALAST: Mexico sells more oil to the U.S.A. than Saudi Arabia. Leftist Lopez Obrador has stood steadfast against allowing U.S. oil companies to own any part of the Mexican oil system. The PAN, however, has suggested allowing the U.S. oil majors to have a stake in the Mexican oil operations.

PAN SUPPORTER: We want a country where people aren’t persecuted for being rich. People who work have the right to live well. And people who don’t work, too bad, tough luck.

GREG PALAST: This week, I hung around Mexico City, waiting for the inevitable concession speech from Obrador. In the face of ruling party intransigence over recounting the votes, he had no choice but to follow the path of Al Gore and John Kerry: concede defeat. While killing time in a dive with some loud mariachis, I ran into filmmaker Luis Mandoki, Obrador’s film biographer. Over chicken mole, he told me that Obrador was of a different character than his U.S. counterparts.

LUIS MANDOKI: The difference between AMLO and Gore or Kerry is the people. He said, "If I wanted, I could stop the country tomorrow. I can. I can block airports, communications, highways. I’m never going to do that. That’s not good for the people." He’s somebody who is very prudent, very careful. But at the same time, he said, "But I’m not going to let him get it, because I won the election." I mean, neither Gore nor Kerry had that connection with the country, which he does. And that’s where his strength comes from.

GREG PALAST: He invited me to meet with Obrador the next day. When Mandoki introduced me to the candidate, I asked the upbeat Obrador what he would do if the ruling party simply refused to count the votes.

If they refuse to count the vote, what are you going to do?

"Espera," he said, "wait" for my answer. It came later that day, before thousands of his chanting supporters. He’s saying we won’t give up. We won’t concede. The election is a fraud. And we will fight in the courts and in the streets peacefully. And he called for his supporters to march from each of the 300 voting districts to the capital beginning Wednesday. Two million are expected to arrive in Mexico City this weekend to demand a recount. They say it’s not over. The fat lady hasn’t sung, not until all ballots are counted, vote by vote.

AMY GOODMAN: That report filed by investigative reporter Greg Palast from Mexico City. Special thanks to Rick Rowley and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Tactical Films. Greg Palast flew in from Mexico City last night and joins us today in our Firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Greg.

GREG PALAST: Glad to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Very interesting report. It certainly isn’t over. Now, today, a major protest?

GREG PALAST: Yeah, well, what’s exciting here is that you’ve got a guy who’s really the un-Gore. That is, Lopez Obrador, sometimes known as AMLO by his initials, this guy is not conceding. And it’s not over with at all. In fact, the only person I know that’s said that it’s over with is George Bush and his spokesman Tony Snow, who said the Electoral Commission has chosen a winner. They have not. Even Calderon is not so bold as to say it’s over.

Lopez Obrador is calling today for — beginning today for people to march from each of the 300 Mexican voting districts from around the country to the capital. There were a half-million people in the capital, as we showed in the film, on Saturday. So a couple million people are expected to arrive in the capital Saturday. This is going to continue on until at least the end of August, because they are demanding a recount of every single vote. Now, it’s a simple paper ballot, which you can easily open up and look at.

One of the big issues is that there is nearly a million — 904,000 — votes that are supposedly blank, just like — it’s very almost identical to the hanging chad situation of Florida in 2000, where the Democrats were saying, well, count the votes. AMLO is not doing the Gore thing of saying count a few votes. He’s saying count every single vote. Let’s open them up. Let’s look. It’s very, very easy to understand these paper ballots. Why are there a million ballots missing? Why are ballots being stuffed? There’s really no ballot security there.

And now, today, Calderon, as of last night, Calderon has said, yes, he would agree to some selective recounting. But there is a very good chance this election will be annulled.

AMY GOODMAN: The first paragraph in the Washington Post today, "Felipe Calderon, the free trade booster who was declared the winner of Mexico’s disputed presidential election, said Tuesday he would accept a partial recount, but that a complete recount would be absurd and illegal."

GREG PALAST: Right. What he’s hanging on is a rule that there is no particular rule which says that you have to recount every vote. Well, what’s unusual, they have the really excellent condition for the voting process in that it’s all paper ballots, very easy to recount, but the ruling party is saying don’t recount. When we say "don’t recount," you have to understand the counts in the first place are done in these remote areas, 130,000 polling stations, some of which don’t have any observers from AMLO’s party at all, tens of thousands. And the results are coming in ridiculous. 100-to-1 against AMLO. These are precincts that came in at the very last minute and put him over the top.

So the question is, are we going to recount every one of the precincts? That’s the only way that they’re going to get a fair vote. But one of the interesting things is that no one in Mexico believes that this is over with at all. There’s a very, very good chance that the election not only may be switched as to who’s declared winner, but there is a good chance that the Elections Tribunal which has not ruled yet — that’s a different group than the Elections Commission — the Elections Tribunal will decide by August whether, in fact, the election has to be annulled and a new election held. There’s a lot of talk among political leaders there quietly that annulment of the election is a strong possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: You were at the news conference that AMLO — the initials, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — held where he showed the videotape, which he said showed a PAN supporter stuffing a ballot box.

GREG PALAST: Right. Well, what I did is, as we showed in the film, I actually went out and got the sheets. I wasn’t to make sure that AMLO wasn’t putting one over on us by having one of his own guys stuff a ballot box. And we got the sheets, and it was pretty clear that it was stuffed. But that’s one precinct out of 130,000. The point of that was, if you look at just the ballots left around, if you don’t vote for president or there’s these empty ballot sheets, which anyone could just grab and stuff into a box, there is zero ballot security at all in Mexico. It’s just astonishing. So even if you do count, that’s not to say the count will be fair, but at least there is some chance of finding out what’s in those packets. And every time they’ve opened up — to me, because I’ve been covering elections shoplifting for years, to me what was interesting was that they have opened up 240 ballot boxes out of the 100-something thousand, and each of those 240 has shown additional votes for AMLO. If he just gets two more votes per polling station, it’s over. Then he becomes president.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of becoming president, President Bush called Calderon. He was one of a handful of foreign leaders who called Calderon to congratulate him. Lopez Obrador is condemning those who would speak out now and before the Electoral Commission has announced results.

GREG PALAST: Frankly, I think it even embarrassed Calderon himself, the ruling party’s candidate, because it made it look like Uncle Sam was petting their little cousin and trying to influence the decision on the outcome. Calderon is a bit weary of saying "I have absolutely won. It’s over with." And it was quite embarrassing for Bush to be congratulating him. It’s like, as if the Mexican president had called up Al Gore the day after the Florida vote and congratulated him. It’s not over with, by any means. And it was quite embarrassing, in addition.

So, for Calderon, in fact, to make it look like he wasn’t George Bush’s puppet and Bush wasn’t influencing the election, Calderon actually took a big shot at Bush and said, "Tear down that wall. Build no walls." So he was trying to create some distance between himself and Bush. It was very embarrassing for the White House to be stepping in.

And as you saw from the film, from our report, we were able to find out the White House looked to be trying to influence the election by grabbing the voter rolls, which, by the way, unlike the United States, the voter rolls in Mexico are private and secret, because they also contain all kinds of personal information about each voter. And so they are actually confidential. And we did find out that the ruling party, the PAN, had obtained the private voter rolls and used them for campaigning, which is against the law. And we did ask them about this, and they were very embarrassed, and they couldn’t give us a good explanation about why it was they suddenly had all the voting rolls and had polling information next to each voter. That’s against the law in Mexico.

Now, whether they use George Bush’s list or not — obviously, they have their own routes to get those voter lists — but it’s astonishing the lengths that this administration would go to to interject itself into the Mexican election. In fact, its obvious attempts at intervention and very ham-handed, have completely embarrassed Calderon to the point where the ruling party actually attempted to arrest ChoicePoint, the U.S. government contractor, which grabbed the voter rolls, and they put out warrants for company agents’ arrest. The company itself now has apologized to the Mexican government.

AMY GOODMAN: On a different issue, and speaking of President Bush, as we wrap up, Greg, and we’ll certainly continue to follow what’s happening in Mexico, in the last few weeks since we spoke to you last, Dan Rather has left CBS. In your book, Armed Madhouse, you talk a lot about Dan Rather, Dan Rather taking on President Bush. As he was leaving, all of the reports around the country were about how he had fell for a kind of scam, false information about President Bush when he — around the whole story of his military records and serving in the Guard. Can you talk about that?

GREG PALAST: Well, first of all, we ran the original story on BBC television. I was a reporter showing that George Bush’s father, George, Sr., used his influence directly to get his son out of the war in Vietnam and into the Texas Air Guard. Rather repeated the story and added a little side story about a memo, which has nothing to do with the main story about whether basically George Bush’s family used influence to get him out of the war. We have never, at BBC, unlike Dan Rather — I mean, obviously, I haven’t resigned — BBC has never retracted a comma of our story at all. The problem for Dan Rather is that he wanted it both ways. I mean, he wants to be — he wanted to do this tough report, but then not stand by it. CBS retracted completely the report about the Bush family using its influence. That was completely wrong of them to do. And to me, it looks as if what CBS was doing was making an example of Rather for putting out a tough report.

AMY GOODMAN: And the general story went, it had been proven that he had false documents, and yet the investigative report done by Dick Thornburg and others actually never took on the issue of documents and, if they were false, why did the White House not prosecute, because this is falsifying federal documents.

GREG PALAST: Right, there’s absolutely no grounds whatsoever. Supposedly this document, the accusation, the whisper —- it’s more of a whisper and a rumor than blank accusations that a lieutenant colonel of the Air Guard, Bill Burkett, falsified a document used by Dan Rather. I know Bill Burkett. I’ve taken a look at this. There is no grounds whatsoever to believe that the document was falsified. The story in chief stands. Neither Burkett nor anyone else can verify whether this little document -—

AMY GOODMAN: Right. They’re not verified.

GREG PALAST: It’s true. We can’t verify this thing at all. I mean, it’s really — what it is is a little sideshow distraction that was used to beat Dan Rather and to punish a reporter for trying to take on the President of the United States. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about punishing reporters and making an example of Rather. Believe me, they know that Greg Palast, frankly, is in exile, reporting from England. They know that Dan Rather’s carcass of his career has been thrown out on the tarmac. There is no reporter in the United States who is ever going to touch that story or any other story which reflects on the Bush family’s extraordinary power.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s just been announced that Dan Rather has signed a deal to host a show on HDNet. Well, Greg Palast, I want to thank you for being with us. Greg Palast, well known for exposing the 2000 election, first for the BBC, then eventually it got into U.S. papers after.

GREG PALAST: And for Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: And thank you so much for reporting for Democracy Now! in Mexico City. Greg Palast’s latest book is Armed Madhouse: Who’s Afraid of Osama Wolf, China Floats, Bush Sinks, the Scheme to Steal '08, No Child's Behind Left, and Other Dispatches from the Frontlines of a Class War.

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