The news from Michoacan, a rural state in western Mexico, sounded extraordinary: The incoming state government had launched a wide investigation of its predecessor for allegedly misspending official funds.
Such an investigation, a rarity, would seem to be a step forward in a much-needed cleanup of government at all levels in Mexico.
But the targets of the investigation in Michoacan also happen to be dissident members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, the country's dominant political organization. The dissidents had attacked their own party for its habit of choosing candidates for office on the basis of influence and cronyism.
So far, the investigation has produced no revelations. Instead, the main effect of the probe has been to quiet criticism from within the party. In the Byzantine realm of Mexican politics, that may well have been the main goal all along.
"We are sitting here on edge, not knowing what is going to happen," said a former state legislator and party dissident, who requested that his name not be used. "We can't move or talk."
The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which is widely known in Mexico by its Spanish acronym PRI, is Latin America's most durable political force. For six decades, it has long prided itself on maintaining at least the facade of unity as a basis for political stability.
Party leaders contend that, given the weak state of opposition groups outside the PRI, only internal challenges can possibly upset the party's hold on power. And there are a variety of ways that any dissent can be stifled.
Criticism Not Tolerated
Earlier this month, the party all but expelled from its ranks the former governor of Michoacan, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, for having said that PRI leaders were "anti-democratic." Party officials asserted that Cardenas' critical statements effectively excluded him from further party activities.
Cardenas was a leading member of the so-called Democratic Current inside the PRI, which last year began to press for elections similar to U.S. primaries as a way of choosing candidates for office. Traditionally, political bosses and the president of the nation himself choose candidates for most political offices. Because the party's large membership has little say, the old practice has eroded the party's support, the critics asserted.
The Democratic Current chose an especially dramatic time to press for reforms; this year, President Miguel de la Madrid, who is in the fifth year of his own six-year term of office, will handpick a successor. The anointment is perhaps the most important political decision made by any Mexican president. Given the PRI's national dominance, the chosen successor is sure to win the subsequent popular vote by an overwhelming majority.
Even before Cardenas' expulsion, the PRI was busy making political life uncomfortable for him and his followers in Michoacan. Just after Cardenas ended a six-year term as governor there last September, his successor, Luis Martinez, launched a probe of the state's recent financial management. Martinez had been chosen by De la Madrid to succeed Cardenas.
A Michoacan state legislator who is handling the probe claimed that there had been an "irrational" spurt of public spending during the last months of Cardenas' term. Cardenas said in an interview that he was both unaware of the probe or of any unusual spending.
Martinez, also in an interview, said that the check on the state finances was routine and had nothing to do with political bickering. "I am a professional in public administration . . . I have to review accounts," he said.
The investigation has Cardenas' followers in Michoacan running scared. Under his leadership, they had formed a branch of the Democratic Current called the Democratic Renovation Movement to press for electoral reforms. Now many of the movement's activists are among those under investigation for their work during Cardenas' term.
On a recent visit to Morelia, the Michoacan state capital, a reporter was able to find only a pair of the movement's adherents who were willing to talk about party reform; both asked that they not be identified by name. Several others declined to meet with the reporter at all, citing their "delicate" political situation.
Claims of Persecution
Just a few weeks ago, however, numerous activists were openly quoted in the press saying they were being persecuted for their views. For example, Cristobal Arias, the state party chief in Michoacan under Cardenas, told Proceso magazine: "They are trying to discredit us in state and national public opinion through a campaign in which they have used the worst political methods in Michoacan memory."
The two Michoacan dissidents who were willing to speak said that Cardenas' followers in the state, besides being in the shadow of an investigation, are being dismissed from bureaucratic posts en masse. Martinez said that layoffs are just a normal "change of team" that follows any administrative transition.
Despite such denials, PRI officials in Michoacan are clearly making the dissidents feel unwanted.
Alfonso Quintero, the head of the PRI in Michoacan, said that Democratic Current promoters will face "sanctions" for their activities. The president of the Federation of Popular Organizations, a PRI bureaucratic union in Michoacan, said that the Democratic Current was serving the interest of unnamed "enemies of Mexico." Similar comments have been almost daily fare in Michoacan newspapers since the beginning of the year.