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NEWS ANALYSIS : Mexico Killings Stir Fears Over the System’s Stability

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 began to slowly provide information and correct Wednesday’s misinformation about the killing of yet another prominent figure.

Atty. Gen. Humberto Benitez said late Thursday that Francisco Ruiz Massieu--the second-ranking official in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled this country for 65 years--was killed by an Intratec 9-millimeter handgun and that the suspect in the slaying had previously been misidentified.

The suspect in custody is now believed to be Daniel Aguilar Trevino from the northern state of Tamaulipas, where authorities on Wednesday conducted sweeps against the “Gulf” drug cartel. He told authorities that two men paid him the equivalent of $17,000 to commit the killing, Benitez said.

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The weapon used to kill Ruiz Massieu has been traced to a community in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, U.S. law enforcement sources said Thursday.

Benitez refused to take questions after reading a brief statement or to confirm information about the gun that U.S. authorities, who helped with the investigation, said is a model known as a “Tec 9" and was purchased in an unnamed border city. It was not immediately clear who made the purchase or when.

Ballistics tests match the bullet that killed Ruiz Massieu to the gun, Benitez said.

Aguilar Trevino allegedly said in his statement to police that he was hired by Carlos Angel Cantu from his village of Corralejo in San Carlos county in Tamaulipas, a state with a reputation for violence and illegal drugs. Cantu and Aguilar Trevino arrived in the capital three weeks ago, and, for the four days before the killing, stayed at the home of Fernando Rodriguez Gonzalez, whom Aguilar Trevino identified from a photograph, Benitez said.

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Cantu and Rodriguez Gonzalez showed the suspect a magazine photo of Ruiz Massieu, and Cantu accompanied him to the murder scene, the attorney general said.

Warrants have been issued for the arrest of Cantu and Rodriguez Gonzalez on murder charges, Benitez said. He provided no explanation for why they might have hired the suspect to kill Ruiz Massieu.

The mixup about identity--which Benitez attributed to the suspect’s having initially misidentified himself, then clarified when he made his formal statement--exacerbated lack of public confidence in law enforcement’s ability to solve crimes.

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.

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Coming just six months after the assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, Ruiz Massieu’s slaying 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.

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“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.

“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?”

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“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.

“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.”

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Any of Mexico’s top drug cartels could have been involved in the slaying, 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 slaying earlier this year of Tijuana Police Chief Jose Federico Benitez.

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.

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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.

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

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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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