Carlos Salinas de Gortari publicly defended himself and his family Wednesday, continuing to shatter a decades-long Mexican tradition of former presidents keeping silent after leaving office.
His action also signaled to many analysts that this nation’s 66-year-old system of authoritarian, one-party rule is rupturing under the weight of a single arrest and of President Ernesto Zedillo’s promise of equal justice and reform.
The former president blasted as “absurd” Tuesday’s arrest of his older brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari. The elder Salinas is charged with masterminding last year’s murder of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary general of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
“I will only say that the motive appears to me incredible, suggesting that someone from the Salinas family was against the political progressiveness of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu,” the former president said in his third telephone call in 24 hours to a national television station.
He noted that he had personally promoted Ruiz Massieu for the PRI’s No. 2 spot, and said of the late politician: “He was a modernist within the modernization program that I pushed. Therefore, I repeat, the motive alluded to appears absurd. And finally, I reiterate that I am convinced of the innocence of my brother.”
Within hours of his broadcast statement, Mexico’s state news agency, Notimex, reported that the former president had formally withdrawn his candidacy to head the new World Trade Organization. After he left office Nov. 31, the Harvard-educated Salinas went on a tour of world capitals, lobbying--with strong American backing--for his dream post as international trade czar.
Meantime, in an apparent response to the former president’s remarks, Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano issued his own statement: a two-line communique underscoring that the motive in Ruiz Massieu’s Sept. 28 slaying has yet to be determined but that it will be made clear.
Salinas’ defense of himself and his brother, analysts said, was as far out of Mexico’s traditional political bounds as was Zedillo’s decision to permit the arrest of the elder Salinas.
Although the public evidence for it seems lean at best, Tuesday’s arrest was the first such criminal action against a previous government in an unbroken succession of PRI presidents since 1936. In that year, Lazaro Cardenas officially exiled his predecessor, Plutarco Elias Calles, to the United States.
Indeed, events of the last 48 hours here convinced most analysts that the arcane system prevailing in Mexico since the PRI took office in 1929 has begun to crumble--this after weeks of fraying under Zedillo’s continuing efforts to fulfill his promises to separate his party from state power and enforce a new rule of equal justice.
The Salinas arrest came on the heels of a bitter PRI election defeat two weeks ago in the strategic state of Jalisco and the allegation by Lozano a week later of a wide conspiracy involving party stalwarts in the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI presidential candidate, last March.
In that context, the arrest of the former president’s brother was seen as a powerful, concrete sign that the PRI’s years of ruling with impunity are over.
“The old Mexican regime is being toppled with pick and shovel,” political columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio declared.
“Rupture in the system,” said the simple headline in the capital’s prestigious financial daily, El Financiero.
“Zedillo and Salinas split,” concluded the daily newspaper Reforma.
Capitalizing on the apparent rupture, the conservative National Action Party, or PAN--which swept the Jalisco elections and is ahead in two other key state contests that will be held in May--said the Salinas arrest “reflects an important change in the national life of Mexico. The construction of an authentic rule of law in our nation demands decisive actions like these.”
The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, called it the beginning of the end for the PRI.
Declaring the arrest “a very important historical event,” prominent Mexican historian Lorenzo Meyer noted the irony that it was Zedillo--whose image has been weakened by the economic and political crisis that marked his first two months in office--who broke tradition. Using a term often employed in connection with the Italian Mafia, he spoke of “ omerta, that unwritten (Mexican) rule that says an acting president does not pursue the crimes of the previous administration, mostly so that his own will not be pursued later.”
Analyst Riva Palacio added: “Zedillo has chosen his path. With stutters and erratic gestures, yesterday he attacked the rudder. He is leading the destruction of the system. . . . He is a Puritan about the law and is profoundly ignorant of the Mexican political system. That is the perfect combination to promote change. It will only take a little more time to know whether he really knows what he is doing, and, more importantly, if he has the strength to conduct the nonviolent political revolution that he unleashed.”
It also will take some time, crime analysts observed, to determine if the evidence against Raul Salinas is strong enough to support the charges against him.
In asserting that he masterminded Ruiz Massieu’s murder, Deputy Atty. Gen. Pablo Chapa Bezanilla read an 11-page statement of charges that attempted to link the accused to more than a dozen individuals--both alleged co-conspirators and those who allegedly carried out the assassination.
The prosecutor listed the names and restated charges against 14 suspects already in custody, among them Daniel Aguilar Trevino, the alleged gunman who shot Ruiz Massieu as he left a breakfast with fellow PRI members at a downtown Mexico City hotel.
Chapa quoted from the testimony of several of those suspects to link Salinas to PRI legislator Manuel Munoz Rocha. Munoz Rocha has eluded a global manhunt since he was charged with masterminding the assassination last fall.
Chapa cited telephone and police surveillance records to document that Munoz Rocha and Salinas had “discreet but consistent” contact with each other in the days before and after the murder.
The day after the assassination, Chapa said, Munoz Rocha made two calls from a hide-out in the suburb of Pachuca. The first was to Salinas. The second was to Esther Duran, a key witness who has not been arrested. Chapa said Duran has testified that, two days before the murder, she accompanied Munoz Rocha to a bank safety deposit box in Mexico City. There, they deposited $70,500--a sum that she said represented partial payment for organizers of the crime.
But Chapa produced no evidence to link Salinas to the accused gunman, nor to the web of alleged conspirators identified and jailed by the previous special prosecutor--Ruiz Massieu’s brother, Mario, who resigned his deputy attorney general post and his PRI membership on Nov. 23, when he accused high-level party members of covering up the crime.
Reacting to Tuesday’s arrest, the veteran prosecutor--whose book on his brother’s assassination, “I Accuse,” was released last week--said this step was “a political measure” that will benefit Zedillo.
“I don’t exonerate Raul Salinas,” he added. “What I’m saying is that during the 57 days that I was in charge of the investigation, I did not obtain elements that would implicate him as the probable mastermind.”
Ruiz Massieu, now a consultant to the Mexican opposition, was one of the few observers who concluded that the arrest ultimately will strengthen the ruling party.
“In fact, the PRI emerged as the beneficiary of the jailing of Raul Salinas, because there is a tradition that the new president should break with his predecessor,” he said.
But most analysts concluded that this break was so unprecedented in scope and effect that the PRI’s ultimate benefit will come only with an utterly reformed, democratic party.
That view received its greatest support from the party’s leadership. “The government of President Zedillo, with this action, safeguards the fundamental principal of Mexican society: the supremacy of the law,” declared party President Maria de los Angeles Moreno in a statement that reiterated her commitment to accelerate internal party reform. “For no one is above the law, and nothing is above the law.”
* UNDER FIRE: U.S. $20-billion aid program for Mexico is endangered. D1