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Media : Fugitives in Mexico Take to the Airwaves : Viewers are riveted to the screen as high-profile suspects turn themselves in.


MEXICO CITY — Viewers of Television Azteca, Mexico's newest television network, woke up one morning early this month to see a live interview with Maria Eugenia Ramirez Arauz, a fugitive from justice.

On the screen, Ramirez Arauz, a suspected conspirator in an audacious political assassination, smoked nervously and glanced around the studio as two newscasters peppered her with questions, sometimes interrupting each other. Then, she picked up a telephone connected to the attorney general's office and turned herself in for questioning in the murder of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the second-ranking official in Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

She was the second of three suspects--among the more than a dozen people under arrest in the case--to have turned themselves over to authorities on the air.

Carlos Angel Cantu, another suspect, had stopped at a station of the rival Televisa chain in the border town of Matamoros to call police after he heard his mother's televised plea that he give himself up. On Thursday, Marco Antonio Rodriguez Gonzalez presented himself at a television station in Mexicali.

In a country where police are feared more than trusted, live television has been thrust into an active role in crime investigations. Television cameras were rolling when Luis Donaldo Colosio, the ruling party's presidential candidate, was killed March 23 in Tijuana. A special prosecutor sought to prove a plot based on interpretations of a videotape showing a pushing, shoving mob.

No tapes were needed to provide evidence of a conspiracy in the Ruiz Massieu murder. The suspected triggerman, who witnesses said killed the party leader outside a downtown hotel, quickly confessed to being part of a plot.

As he began naming names, police started making arrests. Cantu and Ramirez Arauz decided to give themselves up--each to a different television station.

"People who are turning themselves in are looking for protection," media critic Raul Trejo said. "They want everyone to know that they gave themselves up and that they were in good health when they did so."

Television surrenders may be old hat in Los Angeles, where suspected criminals have been giving themselves up to KTLA-TV Channel 5 reporter Warren Wilson for the last five years. But in Mexico, the active role that television is taking in criminal investigations is still startling, even to broadcasters.

"This could never have happened five years ago," said a news executive, who asked not to be identified. "If a suspect had gone to a television studio, he would have been locked in a room until the police came."

In contrast, Ramirez Arauz got the opportunity to tell her story to a live television audience, rather than relying on law enforcement agencies to release her official statement to the public.

"I was walking around, thinking of giving myself up, but I was afraid," she began. Visibly tired, with her brown eyes darting around the studio and the dark curls of a ponytail at the nape of her neck, Ramirez Arauz went on to recount her life in the days leading up to and following the assassination.

She told of fighting with her common-law husband--since arrested in the alleged murder plot--over a stranger he had brought to stay at their home. The afternoon of the killing, she said, "I was at home, and I saw that the person who had stayed at my house was on television as the assassin of Mr. Ruiz Massieu."

Terrified, she fled from the house and wandered the streets for days, buying newspapers to learn what was happening to her family. Her brother and two brothers-in-law have also been implicated in the murder.

She claimed on the air that she and her relatives knew nothing about the alleged murder plot.

"They are torturing my family into saying whatever they want them to," she charged. At the end of the interview, Ramirez Arauz picked up the telephone. The voice of Assistant Atty. Gen. Mario Ruiz Massieu, brother of the slain politician, could be heard on the other end of the line.

"Why did you go to Television Azteca?" he asked her. She replied: "Because I was afraid." Then she asked for a human rights commission representative to be present at her questioning. A few hours later, after Ramirez Arauz had surrendered, police said she had confessed to participating in the supposed conspiracy.

The on-air surrenders in the Ruiz Massieu assassination are just the latest incidents that have drawn television into crime cases. Previously, kidnapers have demanded that representatives of their victims' families appear on television and agree to their ransom demands.

This summer, viewers of the nightly news watched a priest, the family lawyer and a son of kidnaped banker Alfredo Harp Helu tell a television anchorman that they were committed to complying with the abductors' demands.

A few weeks later, Azteca newscasters hosted a similar scene for the family of an abducted retail executive. In both cases, the victims were returned unharmed after large ransoms were paid.

"First, each network had a kidnap victim; now each one has its fugitive from justice," said Trejo, the media critic. "It is a little odd."

Trejo suspects that the television could be reaching its limits as a party to crime investigations. Half-joking, he said:, "I don't think we are going to see branch television studios in every neighborhood replacing police stations."

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