The Mexican government formally asked the United States on Monday to return Mario Ruiz Massieu, a crusading former prosecutor, to face charges here that he shielded the family of the nation's former president last year during his investigation of his own brother's assassination.
The extradition request came as a federal judge in New Jersey ordered Ruiz Massieu, once a Mexican symbol of political reform, held without bail on American charges that he failed to report all of the cash he was carrying as he attempted to leave Newark International Airport for Spain last week.
And late Monday night, Mexico's government said Ruiz Massieu had mysteriously deposited millions of dollars in a U.S. bank.
Within minutes of Ruiz Massieu's hearing in Newark, where he appeared haggard and in handcuffs, federal prosecutors in Mexico announced that they had issued an arrest warrant for him late Sunday night.
He is accused of hiding the alleged role of Raul Salinas de Gortari, the elder brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, in the Sept. 28 slaying of politician Francisco Ruiz Massieu.
Prosecutors say the former Mexican deputy attorney general, during his 57-day investigation of his brother's murder, told several witnesses and accused co-conspirators not to mention Raul Salinas.
The elder Salinas was formally charged Monday with murder for allegedly masterminding the killing of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the No. 2 official in the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, when he was assassinated in Mexico City. The heightening drama in the case has added to the political tumult unleashed by President Ernesto Zedillo's declared policy of ending 66 years of rule-with-impunity by Mexico's political class. Zedillo appeared to reinforce that policy when he permitted Raul Salinas' arrest last Tuesday.
"In the records of this case, there are statements from witnesses, defendants and victims who indicate that Mario Ruiz Massieu had full knowledge that Raul Salinas de Gortari was the person responsible for the murder of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu," said Kevin McNulty, an assistant U.S. attorney in Newark, citing Mexico's formal extradition request. "Mario Ruiz Massieu personally instructed that statements be given and used psychological intimidation against persons making statements."
He said the Mexican document asserted that, "Mario Ruiz Massieu ordered (one witness to heed) 'three recommendations: First, you have to remember names; second, you have to make up a story, and third, you shouldn't involve the Salinas de Gortari family.' "
Michael Santangelo, Ruiz Massieu's attorney, called the charges against his client "ludicrous" and said his client's life is in danger in Mexico and the United States. He said he would fight any extradition as political persecution and will file a petition seeking political asylum for Ruiz Massieu in the United States.
"It's pretty obvious President Zedillo's government is trying to shift blame on Salinas and discredit the Salinas government," he said in an interview after U.S. Magistrate Ronald J. Hedges ordered Ruiz Massieu held without bail in federal prison in Manhattan.
The U.S. and Mexican governments now have 60 days to prepare a case for Ruiz Massieu's extradition.
Late Monday night, the Mexican attorney general's office said it was informed by U.S. Customs officials that Ruiz Massieu had deposited $6.9 million in the Texas Commerce Bank in Houston between March and November, 1994, according to the Associated Press.
There was no word on the source of the money, but officials said they were investigating.
Meantime, in Mexico, federal Judge Diogenes Cruz Figueroa found probable cause to charge Raul Salinas with masterminding Francisco Ruiz Massieu's assassination.
Salinas was bound over for trial during Monday's hearing in Almoloya de Juarez maximum security prison near Mexico City, where he has been held since his arrest.
In the prison courtroom, prosecutors produced evidence that they said showed Salinas was in constant contact with the PRI legislator whom Mario Ruiz Massieu had identified as the mastermind of his brother's murder.
That legislator, Manuel Munoz Rocha, disappeared in October, soon after he was charged in connection with the killing. Investigators have speculated he may be dead.
Monday's flurry of legal moves posed potentially major political and economic issues for Mexican and American authorities.
In Mexico, Ruiz Massieu had accused the PRI of conducting a high-level conspiracy to cover up its role in his brother's murder. On Nov. 23, he stunned this nation by resigning from the case, his prosecutor's job and the ruling party.
He publicly blamed the top two officials of the PRI--one of whom is now a Zedillo Cabinet member--and said they should be accused of the same obstruction-of-justice charge that, ironically, he now faces. The attorney general's office has cleared both of those officials of any complicity in that crime.
The continued political tumult also kept up its swift, harsh effect on Mexico's ever-deepening economic crisis, as the peso hit its lowest level ever against the U.S. dollar in Monday trading. It closed at 6.58 pesos to the dollar, though it ran at some points in the day as low as 7.05.
Monday's events also threatened to put the Clinton Administration in a political quandary, analysts said.
They noted that President Clinton has staunchly supported the Zedillo government--even to the point of the President risking his relations with the U.S. Congress over a $20-billion Mexican bailout plan last month. But can Clinton ignore the American tradition of offering a haven to those persecuted for political reasons? Ruiz Massieu's lawyer, family and friends have said they are gravely concerned for his safety if he is forced to return to Mexico to face charges.
"There's no question about that," attorney Santangelo said when asked if Ruiz Massieu would seek political asylum. "I don't think the atmosphere in Mexico is conducive to his long life."
But in requesting his extradition, prosecutors cited Ruiz Massieu's flight from Mexico on Thursday as a further indication of his guilt. Friends indicated that he fled that day, soon after a six-hour grilling by Mexican investigators, because he feared for his life.
U.S. Customs agents arrested Ruiz Massieu on Friday at Newark International Airport, as he was about to board a flight to Madrid. He had been scheduled for speaking engagements in the United States and Canada.
He was picked out from the boarding passengers and asked to declare if he was carrying more than $10,000 in cash.
Ruiz Massieu declared he had $18,000. But when agents counted his money, they found he had $36,000 in U.S. currency and $4,000 worth of Mexican pesos--leaving him legally liable for failing to disclose $22,000.
In Mexico, Zedillo continued to wrangle with the political problems created by former President Salinas' on-again off-again hunger strike.
Zedillo's intermediaries thought they had reached a pact by which Salinas agreed to end his fast in exchange for prosecutors absolving him of suspicions he attempted to impede the investigation of another political assassination--the killing last March of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.
But critics ripped the presidents' apparent accord. Opposition leaders and legislators expressed concern that it was a setback for Zedillo's campaign against the PRI's tradition of ruling with impunity.