Zedillo, Up in Polls, Moves to Bolster Regime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Ernesto Zedillo and his government moved to close ranks and consolidate short-term political gains Thursday, as investigators continued to widen a political assassination probe that instantly changed the face of Mexican politics with the arrest this week of a former president's brother.

"What is left (is) clear--nobody can be outside of the law," Zedillo, appearing at rallies in the state of Tlaxcala, declared. "In Mexico, this is the end of impunity, and I am counting on the support of the Mexican people to make impunity a fact of our nation's past."

He spoke after this week's arrest of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's elder brother, Raul, who is charged with helping to mastermind the slaying of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary general of Mexico's ruling party.

Raul Salinas' arrest came five days after the Zedillo administration apprehended a suspected second gunman in the murder of ruling party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. The two assassinations were the most devastating political murders in Mexico in more than six decades.

The government of Carlos Salinas has been accused of covering up the Colosio murder, and late Thursday the former president told the independent Television Azteca that he will begin a fast today that will last until his name is cleared.

Sources confirmed that Zedillo met behind closed doors Wednesday with his entire Cabinet for the first time since taking office in early December, then summoned state governors to another private meeting that lasted until almost midnight.

In what aides and outside analysts called strategy sessions to strengthen the government internally and its hold on power, Zedillo specifically addressed the key senior officials who had served--along with the president himself--in top positions in the Salinas administration.

Asked the purpose of the meetings, one aide was quoted as saying, "closing ranks."

"There are no groups" within the government, the aide quoted Zedillo as telling his officials. The president sought to reassure them, the aide said, that "the government is one (unified)" after Zedillo's unprecedented decision to permit the arrest of Raul Salinas, 48.

That arrest broke a decades-long tradition in which Mexican presidents did little to trouble their predecessors or their families, who, in turn, kept their silence once out of office.

Opinion polls showing that Zedillo's popularity, as a result of the Tuesday arrest of the elder Salinas, had soared--and his predecessor's had hit rock bottom.

But analysts and political observers said the Salinas arrest threatened to polarize the ruling party between hard-liners and reformers, and Zedillo's strategy meetings appeared to be aimed at shoring up his presidency from within.

*

In other events Thursday:

* Federal prosecutors grilled former Deputy Atty. Gen. Mario Ruiz Massieu for almost six hours under oath to try to determine why his two-month investigation into the spectacular assassination last fall of his brother, Francisco Ruiz Massieu, turned up no evidence linking the crime to Raul Salinas.

* Tijuana police arrested another suspect in the shooting death of Colosio, the government news agency Notimex reported. Authorities said Mario Alberto Carrillo, 22, was seen in a video diving at Colosio's feet as a gun was pointed at the candidate's head during the deadly March 23 campaign rally.

* Zedillo again took the initiative in the embattled southern state of Chiapas, presenting to the Mexican Senate, as well as a multi-party legislative peace committee he created in December, a sweeping draft law to initiate a dialogue with the rebels and to work toward lasting peace through a permanent, new reconciliation commission. The commission would negotiate with the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Congress set Monday as the date for an extraordinary congressional session to debate the proposed law.

* The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, stung by the Salinas arrest and allegations of far-reaching, internecine feuds and conspiracies in connection with the assassinations last year of two top party officials, scheduled a celebration tonight of its 66 years in power. Officials confirmed that internal party reform will be a major theme of the event.

* In Washington, Secretary of State Warren Christopher applauded Zedillo's government for its handling of its relations with the United States and for its evenhanded law enforcement. "Despite the trauma that it must have been, I think it was exactly the right decision for him to make with respect to the prosecution of President Salinas' brother," he told a House subcommittee, adding: "None of us would want to try to prejudge the results of that."

Family Friction

Zedillo's prosecutors appeared on Thursday to widen the investigation into the Sept. 28 assassination of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the PRI's former secretary general, suggesting that his own brother may have been involved in a cover-up to protect the elder Salinas.

Mario Ruiz Massieu, a former deputy attorney general who led the investigation into his brother's assassination outside a downtown hotel last year, was summoned to testify before the latest set of authorities probing that killing.

"I hope that everything will be cleared up," a nervous Ruiz Massieu told reporters gathered outside as he and his lawyer entered his former office to testify.

Pablo Chapa Bezanilla--the special prosecutor appointed to reopen the Ruiz Massieu murder case by Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano--indicated that his investigators planned to question Mario Ruiz Massieu about serious "errors" and omissions committed during the 57 days he led his assassination probe.

Prosecutors have declared that they have not yet finally determined why Francisco Ruiz Massieu was slain.

But Chapa hinted at motives that went beyond a bloody PRI feud between reformers, represented by Ruiz Massieu, and hard-liners, identified with Raul Salinas.

Chapa, for example, referred to unhappy ties between the Salinas and Ruiz Massieu families.

The victim was once married to Adriana Salinas, sister of Raul and Carlos. "Raul Salinas had a personal conflict with . . . Francisco (Ruiz Massieu) through family disputes," Chapa told a local radio station on Thursday.

Asked why Ruiz Massieu's brother was being summoned to testify after his seemingly tireless, aggressive investigation had made him something of a folk hero last November, Chapa said: "We have found within the investigation some, let's call them errors, some questions."

Specifically, he cited only the fact that Salinas' name appeared in none of the sworn statements that the former prosecutor had amassed, many of them from the same witnesses that Chapa said had later implicated the elder Salinas as mastermind of the crime in Chapa's own, second investigation.

Mario Ruiz Massieu was applauded by almost every sector of Mexican society--except the PRI--when, on Nov. 23, he angrily resigned from the case, from the attorney general's office and from the ruling party. He did so alleging a high-level conspiracy and PRI cover-up in his brother's assassination.

He then named the PRI's top two officials--its current president, Maria de los Angeles Moreno, and Ignacio Pichardo Pagaza, now a member of Zedillo's Cabinet--as co-conspirators who should be charged with obstructing justice. Both denied the charge and filed slander lawsuits against Ruiz Massieu.

The powerful statement by Ruiz Massieu--a party stalwart--was seen then as one of the first signs of ruptures within the party that has ruled Mexico for 66 years.

But the veteran prosecutor made no mention that day of Raul Salinas, who remains in maximum-security prison without bail. Instead, Ruiz Massieu praised President Salinas, thanking him for his support in the investigation. His remarks came just a week before Salinas ended his six-year term.

Six hours after Ruiz Massieu went in for questioning, he emerged and would only call his session with investigators "fruitful."

"All of this will be cleared up perfectly," he said. "There was no element to prove that I had committed any of the crimes that they have accused me of."

Boost for Zedillo

For Zedillo, there was positive news Thursday amid the tumult of the assassination investigation.

A major poll published in the daily newspaper Reforma showed that 68% of 600 citizens randomly selected in the capital and the northern city of Monterrey felt their confidence in him had increased after the Salinas arrest.

The president scored his highest popularity ratings since Mexico's worst economic crisis in more than a decade exploded during his third week in office, with 54% saying they believed him more than his predecessor.

Taking it a step further, almost two-thirds of those surveyed told Reforma that they suspected the former president was involved in the Ruiz Massieu slaying. And 66% said they blamed Salinas' government for the sudden devaluation of the nation's currency that has sent inflation and interest rates soaring and left the Mexican nation tumbling toward recession.

Chiapas Action

Zedillo on Thursday also paid attention to Chiapas, announcing that he and the legislative commission he sanctioned to negotiate peace with the Zapatistas in December had presented its comprehensive, yet long-delayed draft bill for peace to the Senate earlier in the day.

He stressed that the presentation of such a bill was a key move to make good on his promise to build for the first time a system of checks and balances in place of authoritarian presidential rule.

The proposed law suspends for 30 days the arrest warrants that Zedillo issued last month for five top rebel leaders. At that time he also unmasked Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos and deployed the Mexican army and federal police to hunt down the rebel chiefs.

The proposed amnesty can be extended as needed. The only mention of rebel disarmament--initially a requirement for amnesty--was that the rebel leaders could not carry arms to negotiating sessions.

During the peace talks, the bill proposes large-scale, federally financed development programs in Chiapas aimed particularly at the indigenous Mexicans who form the backbone of the rebel movement.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

In Mexico, the Plot Thickens

Former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has political and/or family ties to many principals linked to the assassinations of Luis Donaldo Colosio and Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

THE FORMER PRESIDENT

Carlos Salinas de Gortari: Former president de Mexico. Chose Luis Donaldo Colosio to succeed him as president. After Colosio's assassination, chose Ernesto Zedillo as Colosio's replacement. Appointed two special prosecutors in Colosio case who were unable to solve the crime. Also former brother-in-law and political sponsor of Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

INVESTIGATORS

Former Prosecutors: Miguel Montes and Olga Islas. First and second special prosecutors, both appointed by President Salinas.

BLOOD TIES

The Brother: Raul Salinas de Gortari. Brother of ex-president Carlos Salinas. Held government posts during Salinas' presidency. Longtime friend of Manuel Munoz Rocha, with whom he allegedly co-authored Ruiz Massieu assassination. Now jailed on murder charges in Ruiz Massieu case.

THE FUGITIVE

Manuel Munoz Rocha: Former congressman from Tamaulipas state. Said to be longtime friend and political protege of Raul Salinas, with whom he allegedly masterminded Ruiz Massieu assassination. Whereabouts unknown.

THE PROTEGES

Victim: Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Former husband of Adriana Salinas, sister of Carlos and Raul Salinas. A former governor, his career was helped along by President Salinas. A newly elected senator and No. 2 man in ruling party, he was assassinated in September.

Victim's Brother: Mario Ruiz Massieu. Brother of Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Former special prosecutor and deputy attorney general who took over inquiry into his brother's murder. Quit job and party one week before Zedillo took office, charging a cover-up.

THE SISTER

Adriana Salinas: Sister to Carlos and Raul Salinas. Was divorced form Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

THE PROTEGES

Victim: Luis Donaldo Colosio. Former Institutional Revolutionary Party leader and Cabinet member in Salinas administration; handpicked by Salinas to be his successor. He was gunned down last year. Single gunman convicted, others charged (none appears in this chart).

President: Ernest Zedillo. President of Mexico. Held Cabinet post in Salinas administration; stepped down to become campaign manager for Luis Donaldo Colosio. Chosen by Carlos Salinas as successor after Colosio was killed.

Prosecutor: Antonio Lozano. New attorney general under Zedillo. Member of conservative National Action Party and first member of opposition to hold a Cabinet position. Reopened both assassination investigations at Zedillo's request on Dec. 1.

Source: Times Mexico City Bureau

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