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Mexico's Ruling Elite Fears It's No Longer Above Law : Reform: Arrest of ex-president's brother on murder charge suggests tables may be turning on the powerful.

March 03, 1995|MARK FINEMAN and SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — The senior bureaucrat shrugged over breakfast in a downtown coffee shop here this week. He rubbed his chin and winced.

"Strange times," he said. "Maybe good times. Maybe bad. Right now, we're all just hoping this won't become another Salem. If they can arrest the president's brother, well, nothing is sacred anymore. Everyone's just looking over their shoulder, afraid this could become a witch hunt."

Such is the stuff of historic political change. And as Mexicans began to assess the meaning of the unprecedented arrest of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's elder brother on charges of masterminding a political murder in the ruling party, it was clear that the effect on an elite that has been virtually immune from the law for seven decades is fast becoming as dramatic as the Tuesday arrest itself.

That's because the tables appear to be turning on the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and its more than 1 million faithful. They have controlled the institutions of power and the levers of state force unchallenged for seven decades.

But, backed by declarations by President Ernesto Zedillo as he toured the Mexican state of Tlaxcala on Thursday that "no longer is anyone above the law," the sudden, official adherence to a promised new rule of law gave analysts and millions of average Mexicans, often victimized by the law, cause for optimism that a new era of federal accountability may be at hand.

Behind that new mood of hope among the masses and the fear and loathing among the bureaucratic elite, however, is the grim reality that much remains the same.

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In their latest round of arrests in the high-profile assassinations of former ruling party secretary general Francisco Ruiz Massieu and PRI presidential hopeful Luis Donaldo Colosio, Zedillo's federal police have struck as they always have--with impunity, without warning and with apparently little consideration for rights outlined in Mexico's constitution.

The arrests are clear indications that the government's policies and targets may have changed, but its tactics have not.

Witness, for example, Othon Cortes Vazquez, 28, as the street-level PRI operative stood before a federal judge and national television cameras earlier this week. He fainted several times as he tried to deny charges that he was the second gunman in Colosio's assassination. Standing behind a glass wall in Mexico City's maximum-security Almoloya de Juarez Federal Prison, Cortes stuttered, stammered and barely kept his eyes open.

Clearly weakened and apparently ill after days in federal custody, his image--broadcast nationwide--sent shudders through dozens of other low-ranking ruling party faithful, who, like Cortes, had counted among their closest friends the same federal police who they fear may now be hunting them.

The fear was palpable in the border town of Tijuana, where Colosio was killed March 23 and where last week Cortes was arrested, as was a former high-ranking federal police official who was serving as a top bodyguard the day the PRI presidential candidate was shot. Both men were nabbed by authorities and bundled off to Almoloya prison.

Then on Wednesday, in anxious Tijuana, a rumor spread: Federal police had supposedly arrested and hustled away a flamboyant local millionaire whose political clan is prominent in Mexico's hard-line PRI leadership. The millionaire has long been a target of corruption allegations but is considered so senior in the ruling party that he was believed to be untouchable.

But suddenly, against the backdrop of Tuesday's arrest of the former president's brother, the thought that even the elite was no longer immune seemed so believable that local reporters spent hours chasing down the Tijuana millionaire, only to discover the tip was false.

The fear and loathing is especially intense in Tijuana, because last week's arrests revived suspicions that Colosio's assassination was the product of a complex, far-reaching conspiracy and cover-up involving state and federal party officials as well as Colosio's bodyguards.

And while many in Tijuana, like Mexicans across this country, welcomed the attack on the impunity that has shielded those who commit political crimes, the latest charges in Mexico's spectacular political assassinations--and the limited evidence released to back them--have also reinforced criticisms of Mexico's justice system. Most Mexicans see the system as Kafkaesque and oppressive.

Recent developments have created "an environment in which the government says, 'You are guilty, you are the one, because we say so,' and then it's off to Almoloya de Juarez," observed a caller to a Tijuana radio talk show Monday, referring to the feared maximum-security prison. "And what about human rights?"

Investigators have relied heavily on videotapes and photographs of the chaotic assassination scene to identify the alleged second gunman, Cortes.

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