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NEWS ANALYSIS : Probes May Indicate Link in Mexican Assassinations : Politics: Feud between ruling party 'dinosaurs,' reformers is cited. Some feel result was two murders.

March 02, 1995|MARK FINEMAN and SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — Almost six years ago, Luis Donaldo Colosio appeared on television screens throughout Baja California and stunned the state.

Colosio, then the 40-year-old leader of Mexico's authoritarian, long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), took an unprecedented step: He conceded that his party had lost the gubernatorial race in Baja, handing the opposition its first statewide victory in modern Mexican history.

His announcement bolstered his image as a reformer, laid the groundwork for his presidential bid last year and, according to analysts and political insiders, may well have helped plant the seeds of his murder.

As a 1994 presidential candidate, analysts say, Colosio expanded his drive for reforms to the point of breaking with his party's old guard by vowing significant political changes that would cut PRI ties to state power.

On March 23, as Colosio worked the crowd at a campaign rally in Tijuana's Lomas Taurinas neighborhood, he was fatally shot while surrounded by ruling party bodyguards--whom the government now suspects may have been part of a plot to kill him.

In assessing the latest government disclosures and arrests this week in the third official investigation in 11 months of Colosio's assassination, analysts agreed that President Ernesto Zedillo, via Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano, has embarked on a potentially explosive course to prove Colosio was slain by members of his own party--hard-liners in the PRI's old guard, politicians also known here as dinosaurs.

On Tuesday, Zedillo's top prosecutor took the investigation further--and higher. He arrested the brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in connection with another high-profile ruling party assassination that several former prosecutors believe is linked with Colosio's murder.

As the arrest of Raul Salinas de Gortari for allegedly masterminding September's killing of PRI Secretary General Francisco Ruiz Massieu was discussed in political circles here Wednesday, most observers believed that prosecutors are pursuing as the common thread in both assassinations a bloody, continuing feud between PRI reformers and the dinosaurs.

To establish that motive in the Ruiz Massieu case, prosecutors linked Raul Salinas to a ruling party legislator and hard-line henchman from the state of Tamaulipas. That politician has eluded an international manhunt since he was charged last year with plotting Ruiz Massieu's murder.

The Mexican attorney general issued a statement Wednesday insisting that the investigations in both cases are not complete and that motives have not been established.

But in the Colosio case, prosecutors appear to be pursuing political motives on two levels:

* With the arrests of Othon Cortes Vazquez, a street-level party militant now charged with being the second gunman who shot Colosio, and Fernando de la Sota, a PRI stalwart who headed Colosio's second-level security team, the attorney general seems to be laying the groundwork for a picture of a complex conspiracy within the ruling party. It presumes that Colosio was killed to prevent further reform on the national level, analysts and political observers said.

* A motive on the local level, they added, may have stemmed from resentment of the opposition victory in Baja. That victory led to far-reaching investigations and arrests of ruling party officials for corruption and misconduct.

The crisis in previous Baja administrations grew so acute that Xicotencatl Leyva Mortera, the PRI governor, was forced to resign before the 1989 election. "There are people who think the rancor (from the Baja loss) was so great that certain political groups could have taken part" in a larger plot to kill Colosio, said Enrique Garcia Sanchez, a veteran Tijuana political reporter.

Antonio Cano Jiminez, 34, president of the PRI municipal council in Tijuana, finds it hard to accept the revenge theory.

"We had never lost a governor's election," said Cano, noting the state party has renovated itself since. "There was a reaction of frustration, impotence, astonishment. There were tears. . . . (But) the idea that these sentiments from 1989 could have had influence, it's difficult to believe. Although it's possible."

But Cano, citing the Ruiz Massieu murder, speculated that internecine conflict has reached murderous levels within the party: "In the Ruiz Massieu case, it's very clear. There is a great deal of evidence that it was a political crime. But in the Colosio case, I don't have the elements to confirm that."

Still, the arrests and allegations of a cover-up in the Colosio case suggest that investigators suspect that a plot may have reached to the PRI's national levels. De la Sota is a former federal police officer who specialized in national intelligence matters. His appointment to Colosio's security team was approved by the Mexican army general who headed Colosio's national campaign security.

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