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PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO : Old ‘Dark Forces’ Stalk New Reformer : With the murder of his party’s key mediator, the incoming president may be tempted to ease up--an ominous possibility.

<i> Denise Dresser, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, is a visiting fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. </i>

Just as Mexican politics were given a clean bill of health by a peaceful election, the assassination Wednesday of the secretary general of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has revealed that political violence was only in temporary remission. The murder of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu throws a wrench into the calm placid transition that President-elect Ernesto Zedillo had envisioned for himself. Unresolved power struggles and political battles are still smoldering, and unless they are defused, Zedillo’s presidency may begin stillborn.

Riding the crest of a triumphalist wave, Zedillo was making plans to keep his campaign promises: to unlink the PRI from the government, reform the party, promote judicial reform and crack down on drug traffickers and their allies in the Mexican bureaucracy. However, the murder of Ruiz Massieu, a former governor of Guerrero who was expected to become interior minister in Zedillo’s cabinet, reveals that, despite his claims to the contrary, Zedillo does not have a mandate over the entirety of Mexico or even its political class.

The permanence of the modernizing technobureaucrats headed by incumbent President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is not a done deal or a foregone conclusion. So-called dark forces within the PRI, and their aides in the country’s burgeoning drug-trafficking business, may be sending a clear warning against any further tinkering.

Attempts to advance PRI reform have always encountered entrenched opposition because the PRI has never really been a political party; in Mexico the PRI is a way of life, a system for distributing spoils, assuring patronage and, in recent years, a political vehicle for private enrichment via the drug trade. In order to win the election, Zedillo sold his soul to the devil and allied himself with some of the more traditional powerbrokers within the PRI’s many loosely knit coalitions. After his victory Aug. 21, Zedillo probably believed that his unexpectedly wide margin of the vote gave him leeway to distance himself from unattractive allies. Having propelled Zedillo into the presidential chair, however, it is unlikely that the “dinosaurs” of the old guard would approve plans for their extinction.

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Ruiz Massieu was known in political circles as a “baby dinosaur”: a middleman between the traditional party stalwarts and the reformist techno-bureaucrats. A close Salinas ally, he had skillfully bridged the gap between the forces behind Zedillo’s last-minute candidacy. In order to further ingratiate himself with Zedillo, Ruiz Massieu metamorphosed into a staunch advocate of the president-elect’s modernization agenda. He had spent the past weeks applauding the virtues of the Zedillo program for party renewal; just before he was shot, he had outlined that program for incoming PRI legislators. He seemed willing and able to leave longtime partners in the bureaucracy and the PRI behind as he moved up into the new president’s circle. Perceived betrayal may have translated into a bloody quest for revenge against Ruiz Massieu--or against his brother, the deputy attorney general in charge of dismantling Mexico’s drug cartels.

The murder of Ruiz Massieu probably was intended to remind Zedillo of his Faustian bargain and compel him to put the PRI’s reform and a promised anti-drug crusade on the back burner, and possibly off the stove for the next six years. Zedillo’s commitment to a full-fledged modernization agenda against the PRI as a source of power, privilege and corruption is being tested. Whether he will have the political mettle to prevail is far from certain. What is certain is that Mexican politics cannot continue to evolve if the PRI-related corruption and influence-peddling remains a clear and present danger.

The assassination should prove to Zedillo that relatively clean elections and an implied mandate are not enough to assure political stability. In Mexico, most institutions--the judiciary, legislatures, labor unions--are not neutral frameworks for channeling political change but rather PRI-dominated fiefdoms, and many of them have fallen under the pernicious influence of the drug boom.

Unless Zedillo takes the initiative, hard-line and corrupt factions within the PRI could fall back into the complacency, the standard operating procedures and the arrogance of power that have characterized Mexican leadership in the past. If Zedillo does not seize this opportunity to rid himself of uncomfortable bedfellows, Mexico might transit from an incipientdemocracy back to an unstable, violent and increasingly crisis-prone dictatorship.

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