NEWS ANALYSIS : Probes May Indicate Link in Mexican Assassinations : Politics: Feud between ruling party 'dinosaurs,' reformers is cited. Some feel result was two murders.

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Almost six years ago, Luis Donaldo Colosio appeared on television screens throughout Baja California and stunned the state.

Colosio, then the 40-year-old leader of Mexico's authoritarian, long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), took an unprecedented step: He conceded that his party had lost the gubernatorial race in Baja, handing the opposition its first statewide victory in modern Mexican history.

His announcement bolstered his image as a reformer, laid the groundwork for his presidential bid last year and, according to analysts and political insiders, may well have helped plant the seeds of his murder.

As a 1994 presidential candidate, analysts say, Colosio expanded his drive for reforms to the point of breaking with his party's old guard by vowing significant political changes that would cut PRI ties to state power.

On March 23, as Colosio worked the crowd at a campaign rally in Tijuana's Lomas Taurinas neighborhood, he was fatally shot while surrounded by ruling party bodyguards--whom the government now suspects may have been part of a plot to kill him.

In assessing the latest government disclosures and arrests this week in the third official investigation in 11 months of Colosio's assassination, analysts agreed that President Ernesto Zedillo, via Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano, has embarked on a potentially explosive course to prove Colosio was slain by members of his own party--hard-liners in the PRI's old guard, politicians also known here as dinosaurs.

On Tuesday, Zedillo's top prosecutor took the investigation further--and higher. He arrested the brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in connection with another high-profile ruling party assassination that several former prosecutors believe is linked with Colosio's murder.

As the arrest of Raul Salinas de Gortari for allegedly masterminding September's killing of PRI Secretary General Francisco Ruiz Massieu was discussed in political circles here Wednesday, most observers believed that prosecutors are pursuing as the common thread in both assassinations a bloody, continuing feud between PRI reformers and the dinosaurs.

To establish that motive in the Ruiz Massieu case, prosecutors linked Raul Salinas to a ruling party legislator and hard-line henchman from the state of Tamaulipas. That politician has eluded an international manhunt since he was charged last year with plotting Ruiz Massieu's murder.

The Mexican attorney general issued a statement Wednesday insisting that the investigations in both cases are not complete and that motives have not been established.

But in the Colosio case, prosecutors appear to be pursuing political motives on two levels:

* With the arrests of Othon Cortes Vazquez, a street-level party militant now charged with being the second gunman who shot Colosio, and Fernando de la Sota, a PRI stalwart who headed Colosio's second-level security team, the attorney general seems to be laying the groundwork for a picture of a complex conspiracy within the ruling party. It presumes that Colosio was killed to prevent further reform on the national level, analysts and political observers said.

* A motive on the local level, they added, may have stemmed from resentment of the opposition victory in Baja. That victory led to far-reaching investigations and arrests of ruling party officials for corruption and misconduct.

The crisis in previous Baja administrations grew so acute that Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, the PRI governor, was forced to resign before the 1989 election. "There are people who think the rancor (from the Baja loss) was so great that certain political groups could have taken part" in a larger plot to kill Colosio, said Enrique Garcia Sanchez, a veteran Tijuana political reporter.

Antonio Cano Jiminez, 34, president of the PRI municipal council in Tijuana, finds it hard to accept the revenge theory.

"We had never lost a governor's election," said Cano, noting the state party has renovated itself since. "There was a reaction of frustration, impotence, astonishment. There were tears. . . . (But) the idea that these sentiments from 1989 could have had influence, it's difficult to believe. Although it's possible."

But Cano, citing the Ruiz Massieu murder, speculated that internecine conflict has reached murderous levels within the party: "In the Ruiz Massieu case, it's very clear. There is a great deal of evidence that it was a political crime. But in the Colosio case, I don't have the elements to confirm that."

Still, the arrests and allegations of a cover-up in the Colosio case suggest that investigators suspect that a plot may have reached to the PRI's national levels. De la Sota is a former federal police officer who specialized in national intelligence matters. His appointment to Colosio's security team was approved by the Mexican army general who headed Colosio's national campaign security.

The theory that national party leaders were involved in a plot is so widely accepted in the capital now that several senators, among them a PRI reformer, sponsored a resolution this week calling on the attorney general to investigate possible involvement by former President Salinas--prompting Salinas to suddenly surface in public this week to deny such a possibility.

Zedillo--Colosio's former campaign manager, whom Salinas handpicked to replace him after Colosio's murder--has given his attorney general a free hand. Zedillo declared Monday that the investigation must continue until the ultimate masterminds of "this brutal crime" are identified.

Jose Luis Perez Canchola, the former human rights prosecutor of Baja California, said that at the very least, the investigation must examine the work of the special prosecutors whom Salinas appointed to conduct previous investigations.

Like other analysts, Perez said he believes that Colosio was killed because his calls for political reform angered powerful elites. And Perez said prosecutors--who on Wednesday released the statements of three eyewitnesses who said they saw a second gunman shoot Colosio in the abdomen--must build a case that shows the workings of a plot and identifies its "intellectual authors."

The new arrests are "a boomerang that goes to the highest levels," said Perez, who as human rights ombudsman attended the interrogation of the first suspect in the Colosio murder last year. "By itself, what happened here in 1989 does not generate the scenario for such a crime. The order must have come from very high up."

Cortes, the alleged second gunman, is a classic foot soldier in the local PRI machine--a chauffeur, aide and bodyguard for party bosses as well as a reputed police informant. "Othon represents the old PRI, the old ways of doing things," said Garcia, the Tijuana political reporter. "He represents that part of the system that combines police and politics."

At the same time, Cortes enjoyed unusual access to military guards who traveled with Colosio, observers added. Cortes served as a driver on the day of the assassination for Gen. Domiro Garcia Reyes, Colosio's chief bodyguard.

In previous campaigns, he had worked as an aide for Garcia and for military guards of the Estado Mayor, the Mexican secret service run directly under the presidency, PRI officials and the suspect's family noted. "They are an elite corps with impressive power, and you don't get close to them easily," Perez said.

Curiously, Cortes did not mention his work for Garcia in a brief, sworn statement given to investigators last June, long before Cortes became a suspect.

Pablo Chapa Bezanilla, Lozano's special prosecutor in both the Colosio and Ruiz Massieu cases, also has focused on something that led analysts to suspect a conspiracy and cover-up from the beginning: the identities of those who guarded Colosio on his final campaign tour. Colosio's PRI aides, at minimum, apparently did little to screen De la Sota and other top bodyguards who are under renewed scrutiny for a possible role in his assassination.

De la Sota, now being held in a maximum security prison in Mexico City on charges of falsifying earlier statements to investigators, is a convicted felon. He was fired from his federal police job for suspected ties to narcotics traffickers, according to widespread published reports quoting from public documents.

De la Sota had worked in the past as an investigator for the Estado Mayor under Garcia, whom he has known since 1988, and for federal police and the intelligence service, investigative documents show.

In testimony last year, Eduardo Valle Espinosa--a former top anti-drug investigator known as "The Owl"--accused De la Sota of drug ties and questioned his hiring as a Colosio security chief. Valle asserted that De la Sota was among several campaign officials connected to the powerful "Gulf cartel," which Valle accuses of conspiring with corrupt political interests to kill Colosio.

Suspects with connections to the Tamaulipas-based cartel also figure in the Ruiz Massieu case, leading some to believe that the assassinations were linked.

"The Gulf cartel appears to be the nexus that connects the two assassinations," Valle told The Times on Wednesday, referring to the drug gang he insists is linked to hard-liners in the PRI. The recent arrests, he added, "already have been a strong blow against narco-politics in Mexico. There is no turning back in this matter. Zedillo must keep going."

In Tijuana, suspicions have also resurfaced concerning the Grupo Tucan, Colosio's third-level security team staffed by a group of former Baja police. Three members of that team remain in prison, charged with helping convicted gunman Mario Aburto Martinez push through the crowd to shoot the candidate at point-blank range.

Rodolfo Rivapalacio Tinajero, chief of the Grupo Tucan, was arrested last year and charged in the assassination, then released for lack of evidence when the conspiracy theory of the first special prosecutor foundered.

But Rivapalacio, a former commander of the state judicial police, has come under renewed scrutiny. He served as trusted chief bodyguard for Margarita Ortega, the PRI's unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in 1989; her campaign was investigated after her defeat for allegedly diverting millions of dollars of state funds to campaign coffers. Rivapalacio is also wanted for questioning by San Diego police in connection with the attempted murder of his former wife and another man in 1987.

Asked why security men with dubious backgrounds worked at the fateful Colosio rally, the PRI's municipal president said the Grupo Tucan was composed of veterans of such events and that accusations are spreading out of control.

"People who went to the event are afraid of being arrested, of being accused without being guilty," Cano said. "(Whether they are) innocent or not, simply being involved in the investigation makes anyone nervous."

Indeed, the stepped-up investigation--and its emphasis on videotapes of the crowd around Colosio when he was shot--has created a heated climate of rumors, speculation, paranoia and expectation.

For example, Tijuana newspapers this week noted that the site of the Colosio assassination, formerly a dirt plaza, has been cemented over as part of an expensive public works project. They hinted darkly at a government conspiracy to erase the crime scene.

And questions linger about another piece of the puzzle: Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the governor of Sonora, who showed up in Tijuana shortly after the murder and joined the investigation.

Police officers accompanying Beltrones, who has ties to conservative PRI bosses, allegedly "borrowed" Aburto from federal police for several hours and interrogated him at a secret Tijuana location near the beach.

Fineman reported from Mexico City and Rotella from Tijuana.

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