The senior bureaucrat shrugged over breakfast in a downtown coffee shop here this week. He rubbed his chin and winced.
"Strange times," he said. "Maybe good times. Maybe bad. Right now, we're all just hoping this won't become another Salem. If they can arrest the president's brother, well, nothing is sacred anymore. Everyone's just looking over their shoulder, afraid this could become a witch hunt."
Such is the stuff of historic political change. And as Mexicans began to assess the meaning of the unprecedented arrest of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's elder brother on charges of masterminding a political murder in the ruling party, it was clear that the effect on an elite that has been virtually immune from the law for seven decades is fast becoming as dramatic as the Tuesday arrest itself.
That's because the tables appear to be turning on the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and its more than 1 million faithful. They have controlled the institutions of power and the levers of state force unchallenged for seven decades.
But, backed by declarations by President Ernesto Zedillo as he toured the Mexican state of Tlaxcala on Thursday that "no longer is anyone above the law," the sudden, official adherence to a promised new rule of law gave analysts and millions of average Mexicans, often victimized by the law, cause for optimism that a new era of federal accountability may be at hand.
Behind that new mood of hope among the masses and the fear and loathing among the bureaucratic elite, however, is the grim reality that much remains the same.
In their latest round of arrests in the high-profile assassinations of former ruling party secretary general Francisco Ruiz Massieu and PRI presidential hopeful Luis Donaldo Colosio, Zedillo's federal police have struck as they always have--with impunity, without warning and with apparently little consideration for rights outlined in Mexico's constitution.
The arrests are clear indications that the government's policies and targets may have changed, but its tactics have not.
Witness, for example, Othon Cortes Vazquez, 28, as the street-level PRI operative stood before a federal judge and national television cameras earlier this week. He fainted several times as he tried to deny charges that he was the second gunman in Colosio's assassination. Standing behind a glass wall in Mexico City's maximum-security Almoloya de Juarez Federal Prison, Cortes stuttered, stammered and barely kept his eyes open.
Clearly weakened and apparently ill after days in federal custody, his image--broadcast nationwide--sent shudders through dozens of other low-ranking ruling party faithful, who, like Cortes, had counted among their closest friends the same federal police who they fear may now be hunting them.
The fear was palpable in the border town of Tijuana, where Colosio was killed March 23 and where last week Cortes was arrested, as was a former high-ranking federal police official who was serving as a top bodyguard the day the PRI presidential candidate was shot. Both men were nabbed by authorities and bundled off to Almoloya prison.
Then on Wednesday, in anxious Tijuana, a rumor spread: Federal police had supposedly arrested and hustled away a flamboyant local millionaire whose political clan is prominent in Mexico's hard-line PRI leadership. The millionaire has long been a target of corruption allegations but is considered so senior in the ruling party that he was believed to be untouchable.
But suddenly, against the backdrop of Tuesday's arrest of the former president's brother, the thought that even the elite was no longer immune seemed so believable that local reporters spent hours chasing down the Tijuana millionaire, only to discover the tip was false.
The fear and loathing is especially intense in Tijuana, because last week's arrests revived suspicions that Colosio's assassination was the product of a complex, far-reaching conspiracy and cover-up involving state and federal party officials as well as Colosio's bodyguards.
And while many in Tijuana, like Mexicans across this country, welcomed the attack on the impunity that has shielded those who commit political crimes, the latest charges in Mexico's spectacular political assassinations--and the limited evidence released to back them--have also reinforced criticisms of Mexico's justice system. Most Mexicans see the system as Kafkaesque and oppressive.
Recent developments have created "an environment in which the government says, 'You are guilty, you are the one, because we say so,' and then it's off to Almoloya de Juarez," observed a caller to a Tijuana radio talk show Monday, referring to the feared maximum-security prison. "And what about human rights?"
Investigators have relied heavily on videotapes and photographs of the chaotic assassination scene to identify the alleged second gunman, Cortes.
Those methods recalled the approach last spring of the first special prosecutor in the Colosio case. In that probe, investigators locked up three members of a local campaign security team--Vicente Mayoral, his son Rodolfo Mayoral and Tranquilino Sanchez--on charges that they helped the convicted gunman, Mario Aburto Martinez, push through a crowd at a rally to shoot Colosio.
But that theory collapsed because little proof was found to link the guards to Aburto; the probe lurched back to a lone gunman theory, and now to the two-gunmen scenario.
Suspects Sanchez and the two Mayorals have long since disappeared from the headlines.
But they remain imprisoned in Almoloya awaiting trial--even though witnesses say the elder Mayoral was the first person to tackle the convicted assassin.
The seemingly arbitrary conduct by the government and the free-swinging investigative style of the Mexican press have heightened the paranoia among those who attended the rally where Colosio was assassinated.
Numerous party officials who were near the candidate when he was shot have been branded mistakenly as suspects, based on photos or the latest rumors connecting them to the alleged conspirators.
"There are people who have been involved in this who have lost possibilities of work, who have lost prestige in the community, who are still regarded with suspicion even though they were cleared," said Antonio Cano Jimenez, president of the PRI in Tijuana. "The attorney general's office must act with more responsibility."
Feeding questions about the latest government investigation and charges is the humble background of the suspect accused of being the second gunman. Like previous suspects, many of whom have been simple folk, Cortes is a working-class driver and aide to party bosses. Reporters and others who know him find the charges against him hard to believe.
Three witnesses allegedly have identified him and say he pointed a gun at and fired into Colosio's abdomen. But prosecutors have yet to identify the witnesses.
Alfredo Aron Juarez, Cortes' defense lawyer, already has predicted that the case against his client will crumble: "We must see who these witnesses are and what they have to say, because he (Cortes) simply has nothing to do with this hideous incident."
As for the Mexican police, in general--and the federal judicial police who work under the attorney general, in particular--their history of abuse is chilling, at best.
Zedillo's new, get-tough policy on the PRI may be creating dread, in part, because law enforcement officials here have been such frequent targets of groups such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch and of the U.S. State Department staff that monitors human rights abuses.
Prisoner beatings, torture and disappearances have been cited and documented by those agencies on dozens of occasions.
In recent weeks, human rights agencies again blasted the federal judicial police for alleged widespread beatings and torture during Zedillo's crackdown on an armed guerrilla movement in the southernmost state of Chiapas.
"The pattern of federal judicial police torturing and mistreating suspects in custody remains exactly the same as it always has been, and not one (officer) has been punished," said Carlos Salinas, a program officer for Amnesty International in Washington who is unrelated to the former president.
Zedillo has vowed that his policy on judicial reform, ultimately, will be a sweeping one. He has pledged it will include cleaning up corruption and brutality by the police, especially federal authorities.
So far, though, his efforts appear to have been hampered by that very system.
Zedillo handpicked Juan Pablo de Tavira--an officer with an impeccable record and the nickname Inculpable, or guiltless--as his appointee to clean up the federal judicial police.
Published reports said Zedillo recently told De Tavira to make an example of the federal judicial police, to rid the agency of the corrupt and the brutal ringleaders and to help Zedillo demonstrate his commitment to establish a new rule of law in the nation's most powerful law enforcement force.
But, two weeks later, De Tavira was in a coma, attached to a life support system at a Mexico City hospital.
On Christmas Eve, De Tavira, while sleeping, inhaled massive quantities of carbon monoxide. Speculation first centered on the possibility that there had been a leaky heater in his bedroom.
But, as the weeks have passed and De Tavira's brother has pushed for a tougher probe, the attorney general's office has said it is investigating the possibility that De Tavira was the target of an assassination attempt hatched within the federal police.
Considering all the current circumstances, human rights officials in Mexico have stressed that Zedillo must continue to push to clean up the nation's legal system at its highest levels and resist the temptation to stop after the series of spectacular arrests.
Speaking specifically of the accused second gunman in the Colosio case, Jose Luis Perez Canchola--the former human rights prosecutor of Baja California--stressed that, even if Cortes is found guilty, he is only a pawn in what had to be a broader conspiracy.
After almost a year, the investigation has not pursued the masterminds of the alleged plot, Perez said.
"If they keep looking at videos, they are going to arrest everyone who appears in the videos," he said. "The investigation has not deviated from the videos and the direct actors. It has to go higher to a motive, to a mastermind. The tragedy is that in order to calm public opinion, these arrests have to be made. It is a vicious circle that does not go to the heart of the matter."
Fineman reported from Mexico City and Rotella from Tijuana.