Last week's stunning ruling by a federal judge in New Jersey, rejecting Mexico's request that the United States extradite a former top official accused of covering up a notorious political assassination, is a major setback for that nation's deeply troubled legal and political system--and it is only the latest of many.
THE SALINAS CONNECTION: The target of the request was Mario Ruiz Massieu, a onetime deputy attorney general who oversaw Mexico's war on narcotics. He was detained at Newark International Airport earlier this year as he was trying to go from Mexico to Spain. He was carrying $40,000 in cash but had declared much less, a violation of U.S. currency laws. Mexican officials believe Ruiz Massieu was fleeing after being accused of helping cover up information that the murder of his own brother, Francisco, was ordered by Raul Salinas de Gortari, the older brother of former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
The complex and sensational murder case has been front-page news in Mexico for months, so U.S. Magistrate Ronald Hedges' ruling last Thursday on the extradition request had been anxiously awaited. The announcement sent still reverberating shock waves through Mexico City, for the ruling implicitly raised a discomfiting question that many among Mexico's political elite have asked privately for several years: Does Mexico's legal system work and are its findings trustworthy?
THE TORTURE ALLEGATION: Hedges said he found witness statements provided by the Mexican government "incredible and unreliable," and he flatly stated that some of them had been obtained by torture.
Mexicans are acutely aware of the shortcomings of their legal system, and most are deeply embarrassed by them. But to have the system so bluntly repudiated by an obscure U.S. judge was not just stunning but humiliating. And it was only the latest blow to a system that is being sorely tested by ongoing political and economic troubles.
The current problems date back to 1993, when the cardinal of Guadalajara, Luis Posada Ocampo, was killed in an airport shootout between drug gangs. The chief suspects in the crime fled, apparently with the help of corrupt police officers, and are yet to be caught.
THE COLOSIO QUESTION: However, the incident that brought Mexico's legal system worldwide notoriety took place in March, 1994, when the front-running presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was assassinated in Tijuana. Although a gunman was seized immediately at the scene, it has since become clear that some kind of wider conspiracy was involved--if not a political conspiracy then at least a criminal conspiracy hatched by drug lords who wield political clout in Baja California and other parts of Mexico.
The Ruiz Massieu killing followed the Colosio assassination by only six months. Since then, other political scandals have followed with almost mind-numbing regularity:
--Former President Carlos Salinas, once so popular for his progressive economic reforms, left the country amid political turmoil last year; he took flight for the United States in the aftermath of the collapse of the Mexican economy, precipitated when his successor, President Ernesto Zedillo, suddenly devalued the peso. There are still political factions in Mexico calling for Salinas to be extradited and tried as a criminal.
--The Mexican press recently published transcripts of private conversations between the former president's powerful chief of staff, Jose Cordoba, and his mistress. Although the case is still under investigation, it now appears that the woman was some sort of undercover agent for a Mexican police agency or even a drug gang.
--As many as four murders and suspicious suicides have been linked to a major investigation of massive corruption in Mexico City's biggest public transit system.
THE URGENT JOURNEY: In view of the deadening effect of earlier scandals, Hedges' ruling in the Ruiz Massieu extradition case is unlikely to bring down the Zedillo government. Certainly, however, it is not the end of Ruiz Massieu's troubles. Another Mexican extradition request is pending on charges filed after the original extradition request was in process. The U.S. government's currency smuggling charges against Ruiz Massieu remain. And the U.S. Justice Department is investigating how on his government salary he managed to stash more than $9 million in a Houston bank; U.S. agents suspect he was taking bribes or kickbacks from the very drug gangs he was supposed to be cracking down on.
So neither Mexico nor the United States has heard the last of the Ruiz Massieu scandal. For now, perhaps the latest stunning twist in this complex case will force Mexico's ruling elite to face the sad fact that their nation's efforts at political and legal reform still fall far short of the standards of modern nations.
Mexico has come a long way in the last few years. The ongoing scandals only underscore how far it still has to go, and how urgent the journey is.