The head of Mexico's Social Development department dismissed seven officials Thursday after some of them were mentioned in taped discussions about how to use anti-poverty programs to promote the governing party in upcoming local elections.
The dirty tricks discussed at the meetings included kicking opposition supporters off a federal program that provides small monthly stipends to poor families and handing out government-supplied wheelchairs in the name of the ruling party.
It reads like a laundry list of abuses from the past of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades with graft and handouts until it lost the presidency in the 2000 and the 2006 elections.
When Enrique Pena Nieto's regained the presidency for the PRI last year, he said the party had reformed itself. But the tapes released by the conservative National Action Party reveal officials from the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, which is governed by the PRI, discussing how to get National Action supporters off government social programs and insert PRI supporters.
Federal Social Development Secretary Rosario Robles, whose office oversees the programs, said Thursday that she had fired six employees in Veracruz and suspended her department's chief representative in the state pending investigation.
"We are not involved in any election campaign, and I want to assure the leaders of the political parties that in no way will we be involved in any election campaign," Robles said.
On one of the tapes, a voice identified as that of Veracruz state finance secretary Salvador Manzur is heard discussing an aid program known as Oportunidades.
"The people who we see who are plainly not on our side, there are regulatory conditions for substituting them — not just the representatives, but the beneficiaries," he said.
"It's sending a message of: Help us out, or else," Manzur is heard telling a meeting on how to support PRI candidates in municipal and state legislature elections scheduled for July 7.
Another voice, identified as that of state Health Secretary Pablo Anaya, is heard telling PRI campaign supporters: "Before, we just gave out wheelchairs, right? Now, they have to be given out ... in the name of the party."
At one point, Manzur is heard describing an invitation to attend a campaign rally: "My greetings are obviously accompanied by a respectful request that you must voluntarily show up to work with us in our events."
Neither Manzur nor Anaya could be reached to comment on the tapes. The Veracruz state government issued a statement saying it had not interfered in the campaigns.
The officials are heard expressing confidence they could get help from federal officials who oversee subsidized milk, anti-poverty, pension and other aid programs. Some of those mid-level federal officials apparently attended the campaign meetings, which were held between February and early April.
National Action, which said it got the tapes from someone who attended the meetings, said it had filed criminal complaints charging vote tampering and misuse of federal funds.
"I have always said the PRI wins with handouts and trickery, but now we will demonstrate that this is not its only strategy," said National Action leader Gustavo Madero. "They are also unscrupulously using social programs, anti-poverty programs, anti-hunger programs shamelessly for political advantage."
The PRI's national office issued a statement "expressing its interest in having these allegations thoroughly investigated by the appropriate authorities."
Pena Nieto's social programs have already been dogged by accusations that they are politically motivated.
Critics claim Pena Nieto's National Crusade Against Hunger, which is modeled on a program established in Brazil by then President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is actually aimed at promoting the PRI in towns where there will be local elections this summer.
The critics say that rather than choosing the poorest communities, Robles and Pena Nieto targeted a disproportionate number of less-poor towns and cities, including some neighborhoods in Mexico City, with the aim of influencing political sympathies.
Robles said Thursday that votes couldn't be bought that way anymore. She insisted the crusade isn't political and it will operate in only about a tenth of towns and cities where elections will be held.