Migrant-turned-millionaire returns to United States

Saturday, September 8, 2001

MEXICO CITY -- The first U.S. resident to win a Mexican mayorship -- a migrant-turned-millionaire who promised to invest heavily in Mexico -- has returned angrily to California after federal officials overturned his victory.

Andres Bermudez Viramontes, 51, known as the "Tomato King" for the fortune he made in vegetables after migrating illegally to the United States 28 years ago, was elected mayor of Jerez, in central Zacatecas state, on July 1.

Bermudez, representing the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, had promised to bring new jobs to stem emigration from the city of 40,000. Zacatecas state has more than 1 million citizens living in the United States.

President Vicente Fox -- who on Friday wrapped up a three-day trip to the United States to promote better migration laws and increased investment in Mexico -- touted him as a model and invited other Mexican migrants to follow in his footsteps and share their wealth with Mexico.

But on Thursday, Mexico's federal electoral commission overturned Bermudez's victory, saying he had not been a legal resident of the city for a full year prior to the election. It cited documents showing that in November 2000 Bermudez had sworn under oath to be a resident of Sacramento, Calif.

The commission said in a news release that it had named an alternative candidate chosen by Democratic Revolution to take Bermudez's place.

Bermudez said as a result, he would turn his back on Mexico forever.

"Keep your laws," he told the daily newspaper Reforma in Friday's editions. "They are unjust laws because they impede the return of Mexicans that love their country and on the other hand allow criminals to enter."

Inspired by crosses

Bermudez, who owns three businesses in Winters, Calif., said he was compelled to run for office after he saw the rows of crosses in the border city of Tijuana representing all of the migrants who died trying to cross the border.

"We all believe in him," Jerez resident Esperanza Ramon, 53, said at the time of Bermudez's victory. "If anyone could change things, it's him."

Bermudez said he was going to invite U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey Davidow and Juan Hernandez, head of Mexico's office of migrant affairs, to his inauguration on Sept. 15. Embassy spokesman Josie Shumake said Friday the ambassador never received an invitation.

Members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled Jerez for more than 70 years until Bermudez's victory, called the "Tomato King" a fraud and local newspapers accused him of smuggling and exploiting migrants. Bermudez denied the allegations.

It was the PRI that filed a complaint to the federal election commission saying that Bermudez was not a legal resident.

Bermudez and his wife crossed the border inside a car trunk in 1973. He worked his way from field hand to labor contractor, then invented a tomato planting machine that earned him his nickname.

He has hired hundreds of Mexican migrants, many from Jerez.

Bermudez once said that migrants were more likely to fight for change in Mexico because they "have felt what it's like to be cold, to be hungry." He said his victory would "open doors for others to come home and help."

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