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A beauty or a beast?

Twenty years ago, Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo left office in disgrace after breaking his vow to defend the peso "like a dog." When he retired to his private estate overlooking this smoggy capital, local wags promptly dubbed the property "Dog Hill."

Now, Lopez, ailing and 81, is in a vicious fight over Dog Hill with his second wife, Alejandra Asimovic Popovic, better known to most Mexicans as Sasha Montenegro _ or just as Sasha. In the 1970s and '80s, Sasha was the queen of Mexico's racy B movies, starring in such flicks as Snow White and Her Seven Lovers.

The couple's battle over Dog Hill and putative millions in other assets provides a fascinating peek into the tumultuous life of Lopez, a self-styled renaissance man who once identified himself closely with the Aztec deity Quetzacoatl and who appointed one of his mistresses to serve as Mexico's minister of tourism.

The conflict combines the overwrought drama of Mexican soap opera with elements of Shakespearean tragedy. Lopez, who needs a wheelchair to get around, blames his plight on an old man's vanity. "The love affair of an old man with a very beautiful young woman is a difficult love," he says.

The three children from his first marriage, which ended in 1991, portray their father as the victim of a gold digging younger woman. Sasha says she is no gold digger, and she says she thinks Lopez is a bit daft.

"He thinks he's King Lear, Hamlet and Othello" rolled into one, says Sasha, who gives her age as 49. Clad in a tight-fitting orange blouse and black spandex slacks, she looks like an older, more muscular version of the temptress she played during much of her film career. "Reading Shakespeare, which is all he reads, did him a lot of damage," she says.

In 1995, Lopez put Dog Hill in Sasha's name. She has put it up for sale for $7-million. But the former president, who filed for divorce in January, wants to wrest the property away from her and pass it on to their two children, ages 12 and 17. Although Lopez hasn't been to the house since last year, a half-dozen portraits of him hang in the estate's grand living room, and a large bronze bust of him graces the entryway. Sasha occasionally made $2,000 a day by renting the house _ which features a five-story circular library with room for 47,000 books _ as a set for Oil and Water, a now-defunct Mexican soap opera.

As president, Lopez presided over an oil boom only to see it go up in smoke, plunging Mexico into a debt crisis and a currency devaluation. When he left power in 1982, Mexicans commonly believed he had pocketed about $1 for every barrel of oil Mexico sold during his term, something he says "is absolutely false." Lopez says he is broke, making do only with the help of his $150,000-a-year presidential pension and the generosity of his grown children.

Sasha says he has more money than meets the eye. She says Lopez has "hundreds of millions of pesos," which she says are invested in real estate controlled by the children from his first marriage. Lopez sends her the equivalent of $7,000 a month in child support, but she says she isn't satisfied. "I'm not a street w----, and your children aren't beggars," Sasha wrote in August on the back of the envelope containing one such payment.

The couple's now-withered May-December romance began in 1984. Though his political fortunes were at low ebb, Lopez was a great talker with a deep voice, a barrel chest and mutton-chop whiskers. "He was a real he-man," Sasha recalls. "The flesh is weak."

At the time, she was a 30-something former starlet who had appeared, often in the nude, in scores of low budget films. Though they were restricted to mature audiences, the films, typically sexual farces littered with suggestive double entendres, didn't depict explicit sex. Their titles included The General's Trumpet, Sex Makes Me Laugh and The Hard Life of an Easy Woman. They titillated a generation of Mexican men.

Sasha gave birth to a daughter and a son by Lopez before the two tied the knot in 1991, shortly after his first marriage ended in divorce. Over the years, she stood by him in his various lawsuits against his older children, who disapproved of the couple's relationship.

In 1996, Lopez sued his first son, Jose Ramon _ whom he had once called "the pride of my nepotism" _ for allegedly stealing 163 books from his library. He also went to court to regain ownership of an Acapulco mansion he had given his three older children. The property was a gift made to him during his presidency by Mexico's Petroleum Workers Union, some of whose former leaders have been jailed for corruption.

The marriage began to deteriorate in 1995 after Lopez suffered a stroke. He says Sasha got bored with taking care of an old man "who was no longer economically productive." Last year, when Lopez was in and out of hospitals being treated for a bad heart, the relationship collapsed. In May, Lopez had open heart surgery in Houston. He says that during his recovery Sasha berated him, saying that he had "ruined her life" and should have died.

A month later, he checked into a Mexican hospital. When his older sister, Margarita, and his two daughters from his first marriage visited, a scuffle broke out between them and Sasha and a bodyguard.

"They threw me out by force, calling me a s---, and saying I had taken all that was theirs," Sasha says. (Carmen, the older of Lopez's grown daughters, says it was Sasha who struck first, scratching Carmen's younger sister Paulina.) The next day, Lopez left for his sister's house in Mexico City.

Paulina says her father has wanted to leave Sasha for years but didn't have the will. In 1999, Paulina published a disjointed philosophical-literary text called The Horror, an account of a man who falls under the power of a prostitute, destroying himself and betraying his children. Paulina says her book was inspired by her father's story, but is fiction.

Lopez says he filed the lawsuits against his older children to please Sasha. He says she called him a "traitor" and a "little man," and punched him after he dropped the book-theft suit against his son.

Sasha says she never insulted or hit her husband. She blames his grown children for the couple's breakup and accuses them of neglecting their father.

She pulls out a bitter letter written to Lopez by his oldest daughter, Carmen, on the eve of the couple's 1991 marriage. As a wedding present, Carmen wrote, she was giving back the Lopez Portillo family name so as not to share it with Sasha. "Be aware that when you sign (the wedding contract) you will be dead (to me)," Carmen added.

Carmen says her words were taken out of context. She says she and her brother and younger sister tried to improve their relationship with Sasha.

Today, Lopez is once more in the good graces of Carmen and her siblings. Once a week, he teaches a government class at a university Carmen runs. A spark of his old charm remains. "I've always really liked women," he says. "That's been my sin."

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