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Raul Salinas Gets 50 Years for Murder

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of Mexico’s former president, was convicted Thursday of the murder of a leading politician, bringing a four-year trial dubbed Mexico’s “case of the century” to a surprising conclusion.

Salinas, who has become a symbol of corruption to millions of Mexicans since his 1995 arrest, was given the maximum sentence, 50 years, with no chance of parole. Some analysts called the conviction a historic step in a country where presidents and their families had been considered above the law.

However, others suspected interference by the government, which traditionally has had broad influence over judges. They alleged that the government pressured the judge for the verdict in order to avoid Salinas’ release from jail and a public outcry. The prosecution’s case was widely criticized for irregularities and lack of evidence, leading many to predict that it would fail to win a conviction.

Federal Judge Ricardo Ojeda Bohorquez convicted Salinas in the 1994 killing of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. The victim was the No. 2 official in the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and was also Salinas’ former brother-in-law.

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“Raul Salinas de Gortari is totally responsible for masterminding the homicide of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu,” the judge’s secretary told about 50 reporters packed into an underground garage at his judicial offices in this city outside Mexico City.

In a 16-page summary of his ruling, the judge acknowledged that there is no evidence directly tying Salinas to the murder, but he said the circumstantial evidence was conclusive. The prosecution had alleged that Salinas, 52, had personal and professional feuds with the victim.

Salinas’ lawyers announced that they will appeal.

“He’s absolutely prepared to continue fighting,” attorney Raul Gonzalez said. “One day, Mr. Salinas will be declared innocent.”

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There was no sign of Salinas at the judicial offices. His attorneys said he had steeled himself to accept a guilty verdict. His wife, Pauline, wept as she complained to a local radio station that “after four years buried in this tomb [of a jail], my husband can’t be with us.”

Mexicans were stunned when Salinas was arrested in 1995 and charged with ordering the shooting of Ruiz Massieu. Since then, Salinas has been held in a small, chilly cell in a maximum-security prison outside the capital.

His arrest was among the shocking events that blackened the name of his brother, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who had been hailed as a brilliant reformer before his presidential term ended in 1994, shortly before an economic collapse.

The former president went into self-imposed exile days after his brother’s arrest. He has not been charged with any crime.

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Thursday’s sentence marked a rare victory for government prosecutors, who had failed in previous attempts to convict Raul Salinas of money-laundering and tax evasion. Salinas faces further charges of illegal enrichment based on a multimillion-dollar fortune discovered in his bank accounts.

Last year, in a civil case, Swiss authorities linked Salinas’ fortune to the narcotics trade.

While the Mexican prosecutors prevailed Thursday, however, their case had been widely criticized.

At times, the trial seemed to degenerate into a soap opera, featuring witnesses who contradicted themselves, a clairvoyant, a disappearing prosecutor and a mysterious corpse.

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Critics said the case was so flawed that Salinas could only have been convicted on the orders of President Ernesto Zedillo.

“This is a sentence dictated from the desk of Zedillo,” said Alfonso Aguilar Zinser, an opposition senator. “If Raul Salinas was acquitted, Zedillo would have been indicted by 90 million Mexicans.”

Added Jorge Castaneda, a political analyst: “It’s so clearly a political decision, I don’t think one will see this as a step forward in the establishment of the rule of law in Mexico.”

Yet others pointed out that the fact the case even occurred was unprecedented.

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In the past, “there was a taboo on getting too close to an ex-president, to breaking the PRI political alliance. This is now in shreds,” said Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, another political analyst.

Judge Ojeda Bohorquez, inexperienced at age 39 but well regarded in legal circles, said in his summary that his ruling was one of “absolute impartiality, honesty, probity and independence.”

He said he did not receive “instructions, pressures or orders, or any other actions that could imply subordination to some interest other than those of justice.”

He gave particular attention to the testimony of Fernando Rodriguez Gonzalez, convicted of organizing the murder.

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Rodriguez Gonzalez testified that he had acted at the request of his boss, Manuel Munoz Rocha, a congress member and Salinas confidant, who informed him that Salinas wanted to eliminate his former brother-in-law. Munoz Rocha disappeared after the killing and is believed to be dead.

The gunman, a farmhand named Daniel Aguilar Trevino, was captured at the scene of the crime and sentenced in 1995 to a 50-year term.

The prosecution cited Salinas’ personal and professional motives. His sister, Adriana, went through a bitter divorce with Ruiz Massieu. In addition, prosecutors said, the men feuded while Salinas worked for a government food agency and Ruiz Massieu was governor of the state of Guerrero from 1987 to 1993.

The four-year trial, which featured 500 witnesses and 18 million pages of evidence, alternately fascinated and repulsed Mexicans.

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One of the strangest episodes involved Ruiz Massieu’s brother, Mario, a deputy attorney general, who was named early on to investigate the case. While he emotionally insisted that he would find his brother’s killer, he himself was later accused of covering up evidence implicating Raul Salinas.

The most bizarre chapter surrounded the October 1996 discovery of a skeleton buried on Salinas’ ranch near Mexico City. The prosecutor at the time, Pablo Chapa Bezanilla, triumphantly declared that it could be the remains of the missing Munoz Rocha, presumably killed by Salinas.

Later, however, investigators discovered that the remains were those of someone unrelated to the case and had been planted by a clairvoyant who had been assisting the prosecutor.

Chapa was fired and fled to Spain, but he was later extradited to Mexico on charges of fabricating evidence. He was eventually acquitted.

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The judge rejected defense claims that the skeleton incident proved bad faith by the prosecutors. It “could have been part of a strategy to confuse the proceeding,” he said.

Greg Brosnan of The Times’ Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Main players in the Raul Salinas case:

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RAUL SALINAS DE GORTARI, brother of former President CARLOS SALINAS DE GORTARI, was a mid-level bureaucrat until 1992. He was arrested in February 1995 in the murder of JOSE FRANCISCO RUIZ MASSIEU and has since been held in a high-security prison outside Mexico City.

JOSE FRANCISCO RUIZ MASSIEU was the No. 2 official in Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party when he was shot dead Sept. 28, 1994, in Mexico City. He had been divorced from Raul’s sister, Adriana.

MANUEL MUNOZ ROCHA was a federal deputy for the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. Accused of organizing the assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu for Raul Salinas, Munoz Rocha disappeared the day after the killing.

MARIO RUIZ MASSIEU was Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu’s brother and the first special prosecutor to investigate the killing. He later stepped down and fled to the U.S. in March 1995 after being accused of covering up for Raul Salinas by being brutal with witnesses. Mexico is attempting to have him extradited.

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FERNANDO AND JORGE RODRIGUEZ GONZALEZ are top witnesses, both convicted accomplices in the murder. Fernando, a top aide to Munoz Rocha, was convicted of paying the gunman, Daniel Aguilar Trevino, who is serving a 50-year prison term.

Fernando testified that Munoz Rocha told him Salinas had ordered the killing. Jorge backed up his brother’s testimony.

However, the brothers have changed their testimony on different occasions. In addition, Salinas’ defense team has charged that the attorney general’s office elicited Fernando’s testimony in exchange for a $500,000 payment.

MARIA BERNAL was at one time Raul Salinas’ lover. She told prosecutors in 1995 that she’d heard him threaten to kill Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. However, Salinas’ defense attorneys have charged that she tried to blackmail his family in exchange for money.

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