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Probe Indicates Amateurs Plotted Assassination of Mexican Politician : Latin America: Hired guns skipped town with thousands from alleged ringleaders in killing.


MEXICO CITY — All Carmelo Herrera Gomez knew when his lover summoned him to meet a well-connected businessman at a cheap Mexico City hotel in June was that it involved "a matter of a lot of money."

When he got there, according to Herrera's sworn testimony released Thursday, he learned that he would have to kill for it.

The target: Francisco Ruiz Massieu. The reward: nearly $100,000.

At the prodding of his girlfriend, Herrera agreed. It was not until several days later, Herrera stated, that he learned that his prospective target was no less than the second-ranking official in Mexico's powerful ruling political party.

"Too risky," Herrera decided, and he fled, along with his girlfriend and tens of thousands of dollars in prospective blood money.

According to the latest testimony made public, that was the second time the alleged masterminds of a killing that rocked Mexico last month were burned by hired guns who skipped town with their money.

And it was the latest evidence that the political aides and underworld figures now charged with plotting Ruiz Massieu's murder here on Sept. 28 were amateurs, at best.

According to the hundreds of pages of testimony that the government is accumulating under the direction of Ruiz Massieu's brother, Mario, who is heading the investigation for Mexico's attorney general's office, it is nothing short of amazing that the assassination took place at all.

After several hired killers backed out and disappeared with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in the spring during the two previous attempts to have Ruiz Massieu killed, the man who finally carried out the job nearly failed: The assassin's Tec-9 pistol jammed after he got off a single shot.

Soon after, the testimony indicates, one of the co-conspirators who had attempted to hire Herrera and his girlfriend--and the others before them--was easily traced to the home of his mistress.

He had forgotten to get a visa to use a plane ticket that he said he had been given to escape to France.

With the exception of fugitive ruling-party legislator Manuel Munoz Rocha, a key suspect who continues to elude a nationwide dragnet and an FBI hunt in the United States, most of those identified as the principal co-conspirators in Ruiz Massieu's slaying are now in custody.

It is that same amateurish plotting, it seems, that has allowed Deputy Prosecutor General Mario Ruiz Massieu to reconstruct his brother's killing with such methodical ease.

More difficult for the veteran prosecutor as he assembles the testimony of more than a dozen accused conspirators--some of it implicating key members of his own ruling party--has been the political tightrope he has had to walk.

Responding to charges from leaders of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that his daily disclosures of suspects' sworn statements have been "inappropriate," the prosecutor strenuously and emotionally defended himself at a news conference Tuesday.

Ruiz Massieu said the decision to publicize the testimony is essential for a "fed-up society that wants to know the truth."

Unstated but clearly implied is widespread public dissatisfaction with the progress of another high-profile investigation--the probe into the March slaying of ruling-party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, which officially is still blamed on a single gunman.

A former deputy prosecutor has suggested a nexus between Mexican narcotics traffickers and corrupt, hard-line politicians behind the slaying of Colosio. Like Ruiz Massieu, Colosio cast himself as a ruling-party reformer.

During his news conference, Mario Ruiz Massieu said he was open to suggestions that a similar link was behind his brother's killing.

But at the same time, Ruiz Massieu found himself facing widely publicized concerns that his own party loyalties--and his political future--could overwhelm his desire to uncover the extent of the conspiracy behind his brother's killing. If the plot to kill his reform-minded brother goes much higher than a single renegade legislator, critics say Ruiz Massieu may be reluctant to pursue it.

"Neither lies, malicious plots nor slander" will deter the probe, he declared, adding: "We are investigating presumed criminals independently of their political affiliation. It has been said that I will trade my future in exchange for a subsequent political position. This is false and insulting."

Finally, the prosecutor denied charges that his investigation has become increasingly confused and bogged down in minutiae.

"There is no confusion about anything," he said. "And in any case, the advance of the investigation will clarify doubts."

Mexicans and outsiders alike, though, are confused by the intricate web of relationships among the accused co-plotters. Among the 15 men and women caught so far in the prosecutor's net are various sets of brothers, lovers, couples and friends.

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