Lupe Gomez Is a Triple Player

The Santa Ana businessman's big idea got the Mexican government to help spruce up immigrants' hometowns and got him into politics back home

When his turn comes, a man who has been sitting alone and with his arms crossed, stands up and begins a tirade, in which he claims to have started tres por uno. Across the room, a man shoots out of his seat and says, "No, that was Lupe Gómez." The man continues to mumble, but he stands corrected.

Aside from that single name-drop, the only other reminder of Gómez's 13 years and once-commanding presence in the federation is a faded picture of him on one of the walls. In it, he's wearing a slightly tilted smirk.

Salazar doesn't know Gómez well; he didn't join the federation until after Gómez had left, but he speaks of his predecessor with a certain tenderness, as though the men are kindred spirits. "I know he had a lot of problems at the federation, like me, and that has to do with interests in the group, which are totally different than what they should be focused on," Salazar says. "There are people who use the federation to raise their political status. In Zacatecas, being an important person in federations is a way to become well-known in political circles. When you clash with these people, they make things very difficult, and I mean very hard."

Barajas, Gómez's predecessor, is still involved with the federation, but he didn't attend the most recent meeting. He agrees that there are ulterior motives at play. "There's a lot of money, and the politicians are always campaigning," he says. "There's always elections for one person or another, and they take advantage of the money of the program for their campaigns."

Francisco Javier Aparicio is a professor at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, the nonprofit public institution in Mexico City that did an external evaluation of the tres por uno program for the federal government. He says his research found little evidence of the government unfairly funding more projects in areas ruled by the political party in power. "It's kept in balance by which clubs are actually making money in the U.S.," he says.

The most explicit exploitation happens on the local level, Aparicio says. "The mayor will bring the projects to who voted for him," he explains. "You can tell by walking through the localities that mayors use the program to reward loyal voters. That can be a problem. All politics is local, and it's human nature: If you have access to a program, you exploit it."

Like his picture at the federation, Gómez's notoriety has faded, but he hasn't been forgotten. "It's been awhile since I've seen him," says Felipe de Jesús Martínez Núñez, an employee at the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana. "I guess he's focusing more on his business now. He's very interested in politics, though. There's an election coming up soon, so maybe he'll come around more."

His paisanos in Mexico remember him, too—kind of. "Yeah, Lupe Gómez was the president of a club," says Edgar Sillas, who works in the economic-development office in Jalpa, the municipality Gómez grew up in. He pauses and seems to put a hand over the telephone receiver. "Wait, Lupe Gómez was a president of a club, right?" he asks, and then laughs.

"Yes," responds a hushed female voice.

"Yeah, he was the president of Club Deportivo Santa Juana, and he was very involved with the federation. He's a well-known person in social circles here."

*     *     *

On a recent morning at his office, Gómez's eyes light up as he recalls his days as a rising political star. He pops up from his chair and heads toward a photo of him nudged against U.S. Representative Grace Napolitano of eastern LA County, but his knee buckles. "Sorry," he says, "I'm getting old."

Instead, he plops down on a sofa near his desk to relive the time he spent with Nancy Pelosi. "I sat down with Nancy on a sofa like this, and I was like, 'Yeah, Congresswoman, we need to stop the closing of medical clinics in Los Angeles,' and I was fighting for my people," he says through a hearty laugh. "I couldn't believe I was doing that." Aside from Pelosi, Gómez also knows Josefina Vásquez Mota—"The Nancy Pelosi of Mexico" as he jokingly calls her.

During the early days of tres por uno, he met Vásquez, a declared candidate for Mexico's presidency in 2012, who, like Gómez, is a member of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional political party. "We worked together when she was the secretary of social development under President Fox. I invited her here, and she came," he says. "Every time after that that she came, she used to call me and invite me to dinner. Why not, you know? I was the only one of all the Mexican leaders invited to dinner with her at the consulate. I was there with the governors and everything. How can you say no? How can you say no to a woman?"

In 2009, after having dabbled in Mexican politics for years, Gómez went all in. When he kicked off his campaign for Zacatecas' second congressional-district seat, Vásquez was there to cheer him on. He spent two months on the campaign trail, traversing canyon after canyon to visit the district's 27 different municipalities. He slept little and lost so much weight that people started calling him Emiliano Zapata, joking that the only part of his face that hadn't atrophied was his mustache. It was a draining time, he recalls, but it had its perks.

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