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Ex-Baja Chief Reflects on His Historic Role : Mexico: First opposition party governor looks back on reforms--and the personal price he paid.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The governor’s final days were tinged with melancholy, triumph and a sense of power dissipating in a departing leader’s wake.

During an official visit to Tijuana before Gov. Ernesto Ruffo Appel stepped down last week, bodyguards in cowboy boots lounged in a hallway, unusually relaxed after months on full alert, and journalists and officials jockeyed for one last audience.

Inside, Ruffo held court in characteristic style: sleeves rolled up, no necktie, no retinue of aides with note pads. Just a short, affable man in a small, sparse office, reflecting on six years in which Baja California led the historic changes spreading across Mexico’s political map.

“In the beginning, when I took office, there were people who even placed bets that I would not finish,” he said. “Some said I would last six months, others a couple of years. And there were so many comments that I said, ‘Gee, am I going to make it?’ But I have never been pessimistic about the future.”

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Ruffo, 43, looks ahead as a figure of national standing: the first opposition party governor ever, a leader of the National Action Party (PAN), perhaps a presidential hopeful. He looks back on landmark human rights and election reforms that maintained the party’s popularity, aiding the victory in August of his successor, Hector Teran. Incumbents are not allowed to run for reelection in Mexico.

“It was an honest government,” said Victor Espinoza Valle, director of social studies at Tijuana’s College of the Northern Border. “These were virtues which we lacked in the past. The previous administrations were known for corruption and nepotism.”

But there were errors and setbacks, according to analysts and Ruffo himself. Baja found itself in the vortex of an extraordinary outbreak of political crime and combat. Ruffo lost allies to murder and scandal. The turmoil sped the breakup of his family.

During an interview, Ruffo talked about the human costs of power. He described wary encounters with former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, recollections of an admitted neophyte confronting an enigmatic master politician. And he assessed the political and economic crisis afflicting Mexico.

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“I see the next few years as the time of an unavoidable Mexican political transition,” Ruffo said. “Especially if we add the problem of political violence, that only aggravates it. . . . All moments of transition have risks.”

The PAN, which now controls four states, began its rise to contender status in the Baja elections of 1989. Salinas bolstered his own image by breaking the longtime ruling party tradition of stealing elections; the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) conceded to Ruffo, a former Ensenada mayor and executive of a seafood company.

An independent-minded, down-to-earth outsider, Ruffo talked the language of middle-class Baja Californians, an electorate dominated by politically restless and relatively prosperous migrants. Both his strengths and weaknesses derive from his quintessentially local persona. In the national arena, Espinoza sees him as overmatched by sophisticated veterans such as Salinas and the intellectually imposing president of the PAN, Carlos Castillo Peraza.

“He grew nationally because of his work locally,” Espinoza said. “But national competition is another thing. He is kind of naive. . . . I don’t see him with that kind of stature.”

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Nonetheless, Ruffo learned fast and took pioneering steps, such as creating Mexico’s first state human rights commission. He broke the power of old-style unions and political machines, analysts say, by locking up the strongman bosses of squatters groups and dealing directly with the followers to legalize their plots of land.

The governor also campaigned for changing the centralized federal budget, which gives only about 11% of revenue to the states. Although Ruffo met stiff resistance, today the ruling party government promises a “new federalism.”

“On the agenda of new federalism, although they lost the battle they may have won the war,” said Peter Ward, a University of Texas professor who wrote a book about the PAN in Baja.

Baja’s biggest contribution to democratization remains a piece of plastic, according to Ward. Sweeping electoral reforms produced an unprecedented voter identification card with a photo and high-tech safeguards against fraud. It was copied by the federal government.

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Ruffo describes his best memory as the day he showed the new credential to President Salinas in Mexico City.

“I enjoyed that,” he said. “He wanted to know more, how we had done it, how much it cost.”

Ruffo regards Salinas from an ironic distance created by a reversal of fortunes. The governor departs with his popularity largely intact; the president has fallen hard.

In self-imposed exile somewhere in North America, his brother charged with murder, Salinas is blamed by many Mexicans--some arguing a better case than others--for economic ruin and political corruption.

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Ruffo described Salinas as “a wiseguy. When one says this in Mexico, it means that capacity of intelligence to do things in one’s own benefit.”

The relationship between Salinas and Ruffo was ambivalent. Salinas could be cordial and supportive of Baja’s needs. But state and federal governments clashed bureaucratically and in the streets.

During a two-month rush of violence last year, Baja endured a deadly gunfight between federal agents and corrupt state police who were guarding a drug lord; the assassination of the PRI presidential candidate; the murder of the Tijuana police chief by federal police linked to gangsters, and the arrest of the deputy state attorney general on federal corruption charges.

Hounded by death threats, Ruffo feared that he would be the next victim of “narco-politics,” a reputed alliance of drug and political mafias blamed for the upheaval. Politically, he suspected that rivals--not necessarily Salinas himself--were preparing the groundwork for his ouster by presidential decree, a fate that had toppled numerous governors. Ruffo traveled to Mexico City for a high-stakes sit-down with the president.

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“I explained my worry about the evident conflict between the federal government and the state, especially between the police forces, and it was becoming very dangerous,” Ruffo said. “I said this cannot go on, we must work together. And he accepted.”

Though the conflict subsided, crime and drug corruption are still the most urgent concerns in Baja and the weakest part of Ruffo’s record, according to critics and allies.

Paradoxically, the PAN rooted out pilfering by bureaucrats in short order, but failed to change the rapacious ways of law enforcement. Drug murders still go unpunished. An attorney general and a series of police commanders and prosecutors were brought down by accusations that they protected drug lords. While stopping short of accusing Ruffo as well, critics say he remained loyal to such officials for too long.

The power of the gangsters has overwhelmed other governors and the federal authorities, Espinoza said. And Ruffo concedes that he found that to be his most difficult challenge.

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Now, Ruffo plans to dedicate a year to his family, another casualty of politics. He and his wife have separated, but he will spend time with his three school-age children. He is also writing a book about his experiences.

In the future, Ruffo hopes for a national post in his party as a “trouble-shooter” advising officials and potential candidates. Observers see him as a potential senator or cabinet secretary. Some speculate about a long-shot bid for his party’s presidential nomination.

Ruffo said he needs time to recuperate, but does not rule out a candidacy.

“I have no personal project to be the candidate. Hopefully, there will be someone I can help. It would be easier. Better to live normally and be just another soldier. . . . Fortunately, there is a great deal of time before the presidential election in the year 2000.”

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