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Shady Business in a Sunny Country : The dark side of NAFTA optimism : BORDERING ON CHAOS: Guerrillas, Stockbrokers, Politicians and Mexico's Road to Prosperity, By Andres Oppenheimer (Little Brown: $25.95, 367 pp.)

April 28, 1996|Ann Louise Bardach | Ann Louise Bardach, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, won the 1995 PEN USA West Award for journalism for her portrait of Guillen Vicente, also known as Subcommander Marcos

Since the arrival of television, the national pastime in Mexico has been watching the telenovelas, soap operas. These days, however, Mexico is living one--the steamy plots and tawdry characters of its real-life drama far eclipsing those on the small screen.

Consider the current story line: Former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, once the darling of Wall Street and the White House, is now living like a fugitive--first in Cuba, now in Ireland--while his older brother and closest confidante, Raul Salinas, sits in jail accused of ordering the murder of a top ruling party official, who happened to be his former brother-in-law--never mind how $300 million dollars ended up in Raul's foreign bank accounts when he never made more than $190,000 a year as a government official. All of which may be the good news compared to the claims of Raul's mistress, who said she overheard him confessing to the murder of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio to a curandera (witch doctor). Finally, there are the cameo roles in this torrid drama featuring a beloved Roman Catholic bishop slain, gangland style, in the streets of Guadalajara, a Tijuana police chief gunned down while investigating the murder of Colosio, a handful of kidnapped billionaires and a charismatic rebel leader commanding an army of Indian peasants.

Only two years ago, Mexico seemed a model of reinvention, poised to enter the ranks of First World nations and economies led by the dapper Salinas and his coterie of Harvard-educated technocrats. Determined to close the biggest trade partnership in the hemisphere's history, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a decision was made to ignore and deny a series of troubling indicators that clearly augured imminent calamity in both the Mexican economy and society.

Equally knowing and complicit were American business interests and presidents from Reagan and Bush to Clinton--all of whom had invested considerable political capital in the trade deal. Cleverly shrouded by the wizards of Madison Avenue and Wall Street was a country increasingly divided into the very rich and the many poor, an economy teetering on collapse and an Indian population armed and willing to die for change. Perhaps most damning were intelligence reports confirming that Mexico was the port of entry for 70% of the drugs coming into the United States and a de facto narcogobierno almost the equal of Colombia.

Within a year of NAFTA's passage, a presidential candidate, a bishop, a police chief and the general secretary of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were assassinated, a half dozen kidnapped tycoons had doled out million-dollar ransoms for their release, the peso had collapsed, triggering a national panic that required $20 billion in loans from the United States, revolution had broken out in Chiapas and a seemingly anarchistic crime wave lashed the country. A petition signed by 70 of Mexico's foremost intellectuals and sent to President Ernesto Zedillo last month alluded to the virtual impunity with which criminals (both street ones and white-collar ones) ply their trade: "Crime--organized and disorganized--has seized our streets, our highways, our business centers. We have become a magical country: Assassinations happen but with no assassins."

At the root of this national disaster, Andres Oppenheimer argues persuasively in his opus, "Bordering on Chaos," is a country in the steely, paternalistic grip of a corrupt and bloated ruling party. At a 1993 dinner hosted by then-President Salinas, Oppenheimer reports, the country's 30 wealthiest men pledged a staggering $25 million each to the PRI, Mexico's ruling party since 1929, to ensure that the status quo remained, well, the status quo. Emilio Azcarraga, the president of the television network Televisa and reportedly the richest man in Latin America, went even further, offering $50 million to his host. More gifts would follow: During the election, Televisa gave eight times more news coverage to the PRI than to the other parties.

Enveloped in the culture of the mordida (bribe) as securely as if in Saran Wrap, nearly every level of the government has been tainted. Sixty percent of the police admit to taking bribes and not a few have been known to commit robbery, mayhem and murder while in the pay of one of Mexico's half-dozen drug barons. As Oppenheimer writes, Hector "El Guero" Palma, one of Mexico's most famous drug lords (he was finally arrested last year) "made several payments of $40 million apiece to the top federal judicial police commanders in Guadalajara." A single payment exceeded the country's monthly budget for the entire federal police force.

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