Evidence grows of vote-buying in Mexican election

Pre-paid gift cards such as this one were given to thousands of voters in Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — Thousands of people rushed to stores Tuesday to redeem pre-paid gift cards they said were given them by the party that won Mexico’s presidency, inflaming accusations that the election was marred by massive vote-buying.

At least a few cardholders were angry, complaining that they didn’t get as much as promised, or that their cards weren’t working. People at one grocery store in a poor neighborhood of Mexico City said the unusually large crowds had prevented them from doing their daily shopping.

Some of those lined up to use their gift cards said they got them for supporting the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose candidate Enrique Pena Nieto won Sunday’s election, according to the preliminary official vote count.

Some wore red T-shirts and baseball caps with Pena Nieto’s name printed in white.

Maria Salazar, 20, a university student, came with her 70-year-old father, Antonio Salazar, to cash three gift cards.

“They gave us the cards in the name of the PRI and Rep. Hector Pedroza (a PRI congressional candidate), and they said they were counting on our vote,” Maria Salazar said outside the store, as she carried plastic shopping bags packed with toilet paper, cooking oil, rice, saltine crackers and instant noodle soups.

Her father carried another two packed grocery bags, and her 8-year-old nephew carried another.

“They told us they were worth 500 pesos ($37.50), but when we got to the check-out, they were only worth 100 rotten pesos, ($7.50)” Maria Salazar said.

She and her father said they had been told to turn in a photocopy of their voter ID card in order to get the gift cards.

Another woman interviewed outside the grocery store also complained that her card had only 100 pesos in credit.

“For helping them with votes and all ... they gave us a card for supporting them, and all that for 100 pesos,” said the woman, who gave only her first name, Josefina, for fear of reprisals.

She said she got the card for supporting Pena Nieto, but complained that “100 pesos lasts you about five minutes.”

Inside the store, long lines formed at card-reading machines as people tried to find the balances on their cards. Some grew angry and shouted insults against Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto’s campaign and the PRI press office said they had no comment, and the press representative of the grocery store chain did not respond to phone calls. In the final days of the campaign, PRI officials denied similar allegations that the party distributed pre-paid cash cards from a local bank.

On the Friday before the vote, the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, whose candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came in second, issued a statement accompanied by photos of dozens of the grocery store cards, saying they had been distributed by a PRI-affiliated union, and it filed a complaint to electoral authorities.

Under Mexican election law, giving voters gifts is not a crime unless the gift is meant to condition or influence their votes. Also, the cost of such gifts must be reported to authorities, and cannot exceed campaign spending limits.

Violations of those rules are usually punished with fines, but are not usually considered ground for annulling the elections.