For the first time since he left office in 1982, former Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo defended himself Wednesday against widespread charges that he grew rich during his term in office.
For more than three years, both the Mexican and foreign press have chronicled numerous charges of bribery, kickbacks and nepotism during his six years of rule. Until now Lopez Portillo has not publicly responded to this image of his regime as one that was rife with corruption.
But on Tuesday, Jose Azcona Hoyo, president of Honduras, was interviewed by a major newspaper, Excelsior, and during a general critique of Mexican politics charged that Lopez Portillo had run off with "hundreds of millions or billions of dollars."
In an open letter published in the same newspaper's front page Wednesday, Lopez Portillo struck back bitterly.
"Mr. Azcona: Either you are misinformed or are lying. In both cases, you slander," Lopez Portillo wrote.
Lopez Portillo insisted that he had "withstood in silence" accusations of corruption because of "political discipline." This was an apparent reference to the tradition that Mexican presidents stay out of the limelight once they leave office.
He suggested that the supposed sources of the charges have self-serving reasons for spreading them. Among them are the U.S. press ("I disdain their motives"), Mexicans "who earn a salary or receive compensation to take part in my loss of prestige," enemies made when he was in power, ideological rivals and "even intelligence agents of discredit and destabilization."
No Obvious Motives
What made the present case so different, he indicated, was that Azcona has no obvious motives.
"But I cannot remain silent when the president of a brother country like Honduras . . . formulates a disgraceful charge with so much indiscretion," Lopez Portillo said in his letter.
Sources in the present government of President Miguel de la Madrid attested to the letter's authenticity.
Lopez Portillo could not be reached for additional comment, although he is currently in Mexico. Since he stepped down in December, 1982, Lopez Portillo has lived mostly in Paris and Rome, although he occasionally and quietly returns to Mexico.
His comments came at a time when the corruption associated with his regime is much on the mind of the Mexican public. Recently, Arturo Durazo, Mexico City's police chief under Lopez Portillo and his boyhood friend, was extradited from the United States to Mexico. Durazo is to stand trial on charges of tax evasion, extortion and illegal arms stockpiling.
His return sparked calls for the capture of a colleague, Francisco Sahagun Baca, who is wanted for his alleged role in a riverside massacre of bank robbers who had reneged on paying off police to guarantee their freedom.
Meanwhile, Jorge Diaz Serrano, who was head of the huge state-owned oil company, Pemex, for most of Lopez Portillo's term, is in jail awaiting trial on charges of receiving kickbacks on oil shipments.
At least three other officials who served during Lopez Portillo's tenure are in jail. It is often assumed here that the trail of corruption in many of these cases could eventually lead to the former president himself.
The extent of Lopez Portillo's wealth is unknown, although occasional displays of ostentation suggest that, during his term in office, it grew beyond the means of a normal, if longtime, public servant.
According to widespread media accounts, Lopez Portillo built five houses on a large estate outside of Mexico City, where his library was said to house 25,000 volumes. He bought a $2-million villa in Acapulco for a mistress. And his sister built a mansion on federal property near Mexico City.
Last year, his former wife and Mexico's one-time first lady, Carmen Romano, held an auction of personal belongings that included Persian rugs, Chinese antiques and 12 pianos. Many of the items were gifts from foreign dignitaries.
In 1981, near the end of his term, Lopez Portillo forbade public officials to accept gifts. The decree was not retroactive.
Jobs for Relatives
Lopez Portillo also liberally sprinkled his administration with his own relatives: A son was deputy minister of budget and planning; a close friend was made tourism minister; a sister was director of radio, television and cinematography; one cousin was head of the national sports institute and another deputy minister of health.
Public perception that Mexico's traditional corruption had been taken to unheard-of limits during Lopez Portillo's term led current President Miguel de la Madrid to declare war on malfeasance.
It is not clear, however, that his program of "moral renovation" has had much success. Prosecution of former officials has been limited to the lower ranks. Drug traffic, a burgeoning source of money for bribes, is on the increase, U.S. officials have said.