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NEWS ANALYSIS : Killings Bring Pressure on Mexico’s Political System

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The second major political assassination in six months raised questions Thursday about the continuing effectiveness of the system that has kept this nation stable for six decades.

At the least, the virtual one-party system--which Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has called “a perfect dictatorship"--seemed less so as federal police investigated the killing of yet another prominent figure.

The weapon used to murder Francisco Ruiz Massieu--the second-ranking official in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled this country for 65 years--has been traced to a community in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, law enforcement sources said Thursday.

With the help of U.S. authorities, investigators have determined that the Intratec 9-millimeter handgun, a model known as a “Tec 9,” was purchased in the unnamed border city, sources said. But it not immediately clear who made the purchase and when.

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As the investigation continued, Mexicans mourned and confronted doubts about their political system, public safety and the seeming impunity of drug dealers as they conducted funeral services for Ruiz Massieu.

Coming just six months after the assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, Ruiz Massieu’s murder heightens worries that Mexico could be returning to the days of political violence that this nation endured in the 1920s, which led to the formation of the PRI as a peaceful way to broker power struggles.

Ruiz Massieu was fatally shot Wednesday morning in front of a downtown hotel as he left a breakfast for his party’s recently elected federal deputies.

His body lay in state at party headquarters Wednesday evening, later being moved to a funeral home in the south of the capital, where a small group of mourners gathered Thursday morning, until he was taken to the Spanish Cemetery for cremation.

Citizens paying tribute to the politician got into a shouting match as they reviewed the events that have shaken their country this year.

“The person who pulled the trigger did not do this on his own; there was somebody behind him,” said Maria Concepcion Moguel, 60, a retired government employee.

Juan Manuel Zavala Sanchez, 50, an engineer, answered sharply, “You do not know that.”

“That’s my opinion,” she snapped back.

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“And what about Colosio?” shouted another voice from the crowd, weaving an elaborate conspiracy theory. “Do you know when this is going to be solved?”

“Never,” responded Moguel. “It’s the PRI, the system itself. They are killing each other.”

“They are trying to blame it on drug dealers,” said one man, who would not give his name. “Who is going to believe that?”

But U.S. law enforcement sources said they find plausible the scenario that drug traffickers had killed Ruiz Massieu to send a message to his brother, Deputy Atty. Gen. Mario Ruiz Massieu.

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“It’s a good theory,” a U.S. official said. “But that’s all it is--a theory. Mario Ruiz has been active in directing (anti-drug) operations and providing manpower to go after the cartels.”

Any of Mexico’s top drug cartels could have been involved in the murder, the official said.

Mario Ruiz Massieu also had visibly stepped up efforts to capture Benjamin, Javier and Ramon Arellano, the drug lords believed to have masterminded a Guadalajara airport shootout last year. Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was killed in that incident.

The Arellano brothers have recently been identified as suspects in the murder earlier this year of Tijuana Police Chief Jose Federico Benitez.

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Last week, a special team of more than 150 federal police agents swooped into Baja California to press the hunt for the fugitive Arellanos, leaders of the Tijuana cartel. The raids resulted in 15 arrests, including a cartel lieutenant and a former chief homicide detective of the Baja state police; the detective is accused of helping Ramon Arellano escape a March shootout between corrupt state officers and federal agents.

The Arellanos are considered particularly violence-prone and are influential enough to have eluded capture with the help of a protective network of corrupt officials. The simultaneously brazen and bumbling style of the Ruiz Massieu assassination, in which the gunman’s weapon--capable of either fully automatic or semiautomatic fire--jammed after firing a single bullet, resembles previous incidents involving Arellano hit men.

But U.S. law enforcement officials familiar with Mexican cartels were reluctant to speculate whether the Arellanos or other kingpins would choose to strike back at law enforcement by killing a political figure.

The possible involvement of drug dealers, though, gives renewed credence to concerns about an alliance between narcotics cartels and some political factions. Eduardo Valle, a former high-ranking official in the attorney general’s office, has asserted that those groups have teamed up to turn Mexico into a “narco-democracy.”

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Mexico’s beleaguered police seem unable to prevent the violence or to solve high-profile crimes, such as the Colosio and Posadas Ocampo assassinations or a rash of kidnapings of wealthy businessmen.

Concern about violence was an important issue in last month’s presidential election, which Colosio’s successor, Ernesto Zedillo, won on a campaign that emphasized peace and stability. Reform of the judicial system, from police to the courts, was an important plank in his platform.

Lack of public confidence in law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes was evidenced by the fact that once again questions are being raised, hours after his arrest at the scene, about the identity of the person accused of the murder.

On Thursday, two local newspaper reports cast doubt that the suspect held by police in Ruiz Massieu’s murder is Hector or Joel Resendiz from the victim’s hometown of Acapulco.

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The government-owned El Nacional quoted Federal Judicial Police sources as identifying the man in custody as Daniel Aguilar Trevino from the northern state of Tamaulipas, where authorities on Wednesday conducted sweeps against the “Gulf” drug cartel. He allegedly told authorities that two men paid him the equivalent of $17,000 to commit the murder.

In Acapulco, neighbors of the Resendiz Gutierrez family told the newspaper Reforma that the man photographed at the crime scene is not the man they know as Hector or Joel Resendiz.

Officials in the attorney general’s office said they will not comment on the stories until late Thursday or release the suspect’s second last name, which is often crucial to establishing identity.

The confusion is reminiscent of the controversy that arose after Colosio’s assassination in Tijuana on March 23.

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“The seed of instability has been planted in the country,” Moguel said. “Now besides the hunger we have in this country, there is also fear.”

Darling reported from Mexico City and Rotella from San Diego. Susan Drommet of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau also contributed to this report.


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