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Mexican president trades barbs with business, civic groups

September 25, 2019 GMT
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and first lady Beatriz Gutierrez Muller wave after Lopez Obrador gave the annual independence shout from the balcony of the National Palace to kick of Independence Day celebrations at the Zocalo in Mexico City, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Every year the Mexican president marks the "Grito de Dolores," commemorating the 1810 call to arms by priest Miguel Hidalgo that began the struggle for independence from Spain, achieved in 1821.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and first lady Beatriz Gutierrez Muller wave after Lopez Obrador gave the annual independence shout from the balcony of the National Palace to kick of Independence Day celebrations at the Zocalo in Mexico City, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Every year the Mexican president marks the "Grito de Dolores," commemorating the 1810 call to arms by priest Miguel Hidalgo that began the struggle for independence from Spain, achieved in 1821.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and first lady Beatriz Gutierrez Muller wave after Lopez Obrador gave the annual independence shout from the balcony of the National Palace to kick of Independence Day celebrations at the Zocalo in Mexico City, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019. Every year the Mexican president marks the "Grito de Dolores," commemorating the 1810 call to arms by priest Miguel Hidalgo that began the struggle for independence from Spain, achieved in 1821.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s president engaged in a war of words Wednesday with business and civic groups that have lodged legal challenges to one of his pet projects.

The groups were angered when Andrés Manuel López Obrador abandoned the previous administration’s partly built airport on a former lakebed, claiming the project was drenched in corruption and cost too much.

Instead, López Obrador wants to build the new airport at a military base farther away, arguing it would cost less. But the business and civic groups, which formed a coalition called No More Waste, say the president is wasting billions of dollars already spent on the old project.

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López Obrador teased one of the groups this week, calling it “Mexicans For Corruption,” playing on its real name, Mexicans Against Corruption.

“They have been sabotaging us legally. They are the ones filing lawsuits against the projects; they don’t want us to do anything,” López Obrador said at his daily news conference. “They want the same old regime of corruption.”

Like much of the coalition, the nonprofit Mexicans Against Corruption is backed by prominent businessmen. It has filed dozens of lawsuits seeking to block the new project.

López Obrador claims the business groups had an economic interest in the old project.

The No More Waste coalition took out full-page newspaper ads defending its court challenges, saying, “We will continue to fight in court for fulfillment of the law and the correct uses of public funds.’”

“We are not acting out of any economic interest, nor because we oppose your administration,” the collation said. “We are acting out of civic concern that the law be obeyed and that out tax money be spent wisely, efficiently, honestly and with transparency.”

The new project has essentially been stalled for months by the lawsuits. But the government recently presented appeals arguing the project is a question of national security, and thus can’t be challenged.

It is not the first time López Obrador has tangled with watchdog agencies, civic groups and news outlets he dismisses as “conservative” or “frivolous.”

The president has tried to ram through ambitious transport and oil infrastructure projects, often despite complaints of insufficient study of the environment or economic impacts.

The coalition argued that, “Polarization will not help serve the cause we all should be seeking: the development of Mexico.”

López Obrador is about as far from a businessman as one can get; he acknowledged Wednesday that he has never even had a credit card.

So the president was surprised when tax authorities tipped him off that someone had registered him, apparently without his knowledge, as a partner or shareholder in 26 companies, all registered at the same time in the same city early this year. He said tax authorities were investigating the case

“I am not a businessman, though I respect them a lot. I am a public servant,” López Obrador said. “I don’t own businesses or properties. I barely have a bank account where my paychecks are deposited. I have never had a credit card, as incredible as that seems.”