In searing heat, a crowd strains to see the future


MAZATLAN, Mexico -- It's hot. The sun is hot; the wind is hot. The 6,000 or so people assembled on this dusty baseball field are also very hot.

The field, this part of town, is known as Infiernillo. Little Hell.

Ricardo Alfaro works for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, which brought these people to Mazatlan, on the torpid Gulf of California. They came to see their party's candidate in the Aug. 21 presidential election, Ernesto Zedillo. They've been waiting four hours.

"It's hot," said Ricardo, smiling, the sweat rolling off his nose. He estimates between 110 degrees and 115 degrees, and it's just after 11 in the morning.

All of northern Mexico is having a heat wave. It's a hot part of the world anyway, gotten hotter.

Music blares from immense black boxes set on and around the platform, which is decorated with PRI banners. The national colors, green, white and red, flash among the crowd, which despite the heat is animated.

They are dancing, wiggling in place, up and down, old and young. It is too packed to move side to side.

A man with a mustache and wearing a guyabara shirt, a local PRI functionary, shouts over the music. He has a big voice. He is short and thick like the stump of an old tree.

"Mazatlan supports Ernesto Zedillo," he bellows. "Mazatlan supports the PRI. The candidate is coming. He's at the airport. . . . He's on the road. . . . He's just out of town."

A helicopter arrives overhead. Will he drop from the sky like an Aztec god? Not likely: Such entrances are reserved for Mexican presidents. Candidates for the office have to endure the heat and dust.

Still the candidate doesn't come. Still they wait. The last cloud disappears from the sky. The sun really sets to work.

Julio Cesar Chavez, Mexico's premier middleweight boxer, is brought up onto the platform. He is given a PRI hat. When someone as famous as that appears, it is a sign the candidate will soon arrive. He is like a herald.

Again the stump unfolds his immense voice: "He's coming! He's coming!"

At last it is true.

A white bus appears in the road. It shimmers in the heat. It comes closer to the guardrail behind which the people are packed like dates in a can. It is the candidate's air-conditioned bus.

For a long moment, nothing happens. There are the people, the flags, the infernal wind bringing the smell of melting asphalt.

Finally the door opens and men in dark glasses spill out. Then the candidate steps into the white heat of the Little Hell.

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon will be Mexico's next president, if the polls are to be believed and history repeats itself. The latest, issued yesterday, gave him 38 percent of the vote, 16 points ahead of his nearest rival, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party, and 27 points ahead of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party.

The PRI has never lost a presidential election since it was founded in 1929.

Mr. Zedillo is tall, lean and fastidious. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, a casual shirt. His curly hair is cut short. He has a pallid smile. He has never had to do this before, go among the people. He is an economist, a technocrat in Mexico's government who never held elective office. He was tapped to be the PRI's candidate after Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated March 23.

On the hustings, Mr. Zedillo is not exactly a fish out of water, but neither is he a spellbinder. He gives a short speech, promises to do well by the people of Mazatlan and Sinaloa state. He promises to keep his promises and criticizes unnamed candidates of the past who failed to.

"We are going to win!" he shouts. The crowd shouts back. He says it again: "We are going to win!" It is his favorite rhetorical formula; he uses it over and over. It is more forceful in Spanish: "Vamos a ganar!"

Shaking hands along the fence, Ernesto Zedillo works his way back and disappears into the cool dark of his bus. After Mazatlan he flies to Tijuana, then on the Mexicali, where he makes similar speeches.

In both places it is very hot.

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