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Conducting an Overt Operation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For three decades, Fernando Gutierrez Barrios was Mexico’s spymaster. He helped Fidel Castro--and also helped U.S. agents monitor Cuba. At home, Gutierrez Barrios directed the security police--feared agents who “disappeared” scores of guerrillas.

Gutierrez Barrios has been a repressor. A back-room negotiator. But now, at 71, he is taking on perhaps his oddest role: democrat.

For the first time in 70 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is letting its rank and file choose its presidential candidate. Gutierrez Barrios has been called out of retirement to run the primary.

Why would a party seeking democratic credentials turn to a man often called Mexico’s J. Edgar Hoover? The choice says a lot about the arrival of democracy in the PRI--and about Mexico.

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Forget the young, Ivy League-educated PRI politicians who have wowed Wall Street in recent years. The return of Gutierrez Barrios--that’s Don Fernando for the millions of Mexicans who fear or respect him--has been greeted in the PRI with relief and enthusiasm.

“From the point of view of democratic idealism, it seems crazy. But from the practical point of view, it’s perfect,” said Enrique Krauze, a prominent historian and PRI critic. “Yeltsin was a Communist. Gorbachev too. . . . You need a strong man to reform from inside.”

Gutierrez Barrios’ latest assignment is no less daunting than his confrontations with bomb-planting guerrillas. If the PRI primary is perceived as unfair, the long-ruling party could splinter. At stake is the credibility of the process--and of the elegant spy with the white, 1950s-style pompadour who has been a pillar of the Mexican system.

Opposition leaders question whether Gutierrez Barrios will guarantee impartiality. But experts say he is a rebel-fighter with a cause: his country.

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“He’s totally institutional,” says George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “If you cut his wrist, he bleeds red, white and green"--the national colors.

Gutierrez Barrios became Mexico’s silent strongman almost by accident. As a young military officer, he was detached in 1952 to a new national security agency, which evolved into what is known here as the political police--the Federal Security Directorate.

“I went to the security area as just another military commission. With the passage of time, . . . first I was attracted to, then became passionate about, politics,” Gutierrez Barrios said in a rare interview with a Mexican reporter in 1995. He was to spend three decades in the intelligence agency or overseeing it.

They were turbulent years. The Cold War raged, and Mexico’s one-party rule was shaken by demonstrations and attacks by left-wing guerrillas. Gutierrez Barrios’ forces responded by spying on protesters, tapping the telephones of everyone from dissidents to PRI officials, and eliminating rebels.

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‘He Knows . . . What Happened to My Son’

Rosario Ibarra, 72, a tiny, vivacious widow in blue jeans, has not forgiven Gutierrez Barrios for those years. Her 21-year-old son, Jesus, a member of a small urban guerrilla band, was arrested April 18, 1975, in Monterrey. That was the last his mother heard of him.

She has repeatedly begged Gutierrez Barrios for information, most recently when he was interior minister from 1988 to 1993. She recalls that he was unfailingly courteous--and closemouthed. “He knows perfectly well what happened to my son,” Ibarra said in an interview in her Mexico City living room, a macabre shrine hung with posters of “disappeared” guerrillas.

She doesn’t know Gutierrez Barrios’ exact role in fighting the guerrillas but said: “If he didn’t order things personally . . . he still acted badly. He covered up crimes, wherever [the order] came from. Disappearing people is a crime.”

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She is hardly alone in her suspicions. Gutierrez Barrios and his political police have been tied to some of the bloodiest chapters of recent Mexican history, such as the massacre of protesters in Mexico City in 1968 and a deadly attack by government thugs on a student march in 1971.

An unusual resume for a democrat.

But analysts say Gutierrez Barrios’ legendary toughness is exactly what suits him for the PRI job. Only a strongman can rein in wily politicians accustomed to dirty tricks, the argument goes.

Naming Gutierrez Barrios “reflects the enormous fragility of the PRI,” said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist. “Who else can force people to accept the [electoral] laws, stop the [PRI] governors from playing dirty games, stop the caciques [local power bosses]?”

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Well Schooled in the Art of Negotiation

Part of Gutierrez Barrios’ power stems from the perception that he knows everyone’s secrets--this in a country where corruption has long been a daily tool of politics.

“Everyone fears and respects the man who knows where the bodies are buried. Everyone fears the J. Edgar Hoover of Mexico,” said Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But Gutierrez Barrios’ power transcends the murky world of the police. A dapper man who reads Machiavelli and uses courtly language, he symbolizes the PRI leadership’s greatest traditional strength--negotiation.

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The most famous example of his political skills is his cooperation with the United States and Cuba.

His ties with Cuba go back to 1956, when Gutierrez Barrios--then a 28-year-old intelligence officer--befriended a Cuban dissident jailed by Mexico’s political police. The Cuban was eventually freed and sailed home to launch a revolution. It was Fidel Castro.

“I sympathized with Fidel Castro, first, because we were part of the same generation, and second, because of his ideals and conviction,” Gutierrez Barrios said in the 1995 interview. The men remained close.

That friendship came in handy during the Cold War. Mexico made a deal with Communist countries: They didn’t export revolution here, and the Mexican government offered diplomatic and intelligence support.

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For example, Mexico became one of the two major Communist “spy trampolines,” said a former U.S. intelligence official. Soviet and Cuban spies used Mexico City--as well as Vienna--as sites to rendezvous with their U.S. informers.

Was the U.S. government angered? Not at all, said the former official. The Mexicans were simultaneously helping the U.S. government spy on the Communist countries. “There was all sorts of cooperation that helped us keep a good eye on them,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What Don Fernando did was ‘Mexico First,’ ” the former official added. “He takes care of Mexico’s needs first in a genuinely patriotic sense.”

Cutting a Deal Made in Advance

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Gutierrez Barrios was such a skilled negotiator that even some left-wing opponents came to respect him.

Primitivo Rodriguez, a former opposition activist, recalled how leftist parties planned a march through Mexico City in 1977 to support Puerto Rican independence. The protest leaders spurned government appeals to call off the gathering. Then Gutierrez Barrios offered them a deal.

He promised that the powerful interior minister would publicly support Puerto Rican independence, Rodriguez recalled. The protesters were impressed. But, they said, it was too late to call off the widely publicized march.

“He told us: ‘Don’t worry. The announcements canceling it are already on the radio,’ ” Rodriguez recalled. Gutierrez Barrios then handed out envelopes of cash, he said.

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“What he did with the left . . . he did with the right,” said Rodriguez, who now works for the government. “He appealed to everyone in accordance with their interests. This was his specialty. He made us a deal we couldn’t refuse.”

Gutierrez Barrios will need all his negotiating skills in his newest mission.

Four candidates are competing for the PRI vote in November. Many Mexicans question whether a fair election is possible in a party accustomed to vote fraud, in which the president traditionally has named his successor through the dedazo--or big finger.

Already, three candidates are charging that the new process has unfairly benefited the fourth, Francisco Labastida, widely considered the choice of President Ernesto Zedillo.

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Gutierrez Barrios has pledged that the primary will be clean.

“We will do whatever we have to, with great energy, to ensure that the PRI selection process takes place with full honesty,” he said in his only recent interview, with the Mexico City daily Universal.

But can he really lead the PRI into democracy?

Many Mexicans, even PRI critics, think so.

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“He’s so intelligent, he realizes the country has changed and that the Mexican system can’t continue being the authoritarian, monolithic system it was before,” said Krauze, the historian.

Of course, he said, Gutierrez Barrios is an odd poster boy for democracy. But the PRI’s priority is not impressing outsiders. Rather, it has to convince its own members that their voices will be counted. And Gutierrez Barrios is famous for keeping his word.

“The system has ended,” Krauze said. “But the men remain. And the most respected of these men is him.”

In recent weeks, Gutierrez Barrios has worked behind the scenes to draw up rules for the primary and seek consensus among the candidates and party factions. He rarely speaks to the media and did not respond to an interview request from The Times.

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Such a discreet style is true to form. The spymaster is such a mysterious and intriguing figure that he has appeared, at times thinly disguised, in several popular Mexican novels.

The lack of information about his actions could help explain why he continues to enjoy political acceptance. Other officials associated with repression are now reviled; not Gutierrez Barrios. Even critics can’t pin precise violations on him.

Additionally, Gutierrez Barrios is seen primarily as a pragmatist who would use violence only after all else failed. He is not the kind of brutal repressor typical of Latin American dictatorships that faced bigger rebel groups, commentators say.

“He had to make grave decisions, but he’s not a man sick with violence. He did what he had to do,” said Alfonso Zarate, the editor of a political newsletter.

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Despite his political wizardry, even Gutierrez Barrios hasn’t been able to completely escape Mexico’s intrigues.

In December 1997, heavily armed men kidnapped him in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood, according to news reports and officials. The news weekly Proceso reported that Gutierrez Barrios was freed after six days upon paying a ransom of $800,000.

Speculation swirled as to who would dare abduct the country’s intelligence legend. Political enemies? Left-wing guerrillas? The government itself?

Mexicans will probably never know. Ever discreet, Gutierrez Barrios emerged after his ordeal to deny that it had ever happened. In a letter to one newspaper, he wrote, “I am outside Mexico, enjoying a vacation.”

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