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Los Angeles Times Interview

Ernesto Zedillo

Tackling Economic Crises, Corruption and Political Violence in Mexico

September 15, 1996|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is an editorial writer for The Times. He interviewed Ernesto Zedillo in the president's office in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY — No Mexican president in modern times has faced the array of problems--from economic crisis to armed insurrection--that Ernesto Zedillo has in his first 21 months in office. Yet, Zedillo does not appear overwhelmed. Indeed, he is no longer the accidental candidate who filled the political vacuum created by the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, his party's presidential candidate, in March 1994. Zedillo confidently predicts that he will pull his country out of its state of emergency in the near future.

Unfortunately for him, such confidence is not widely shared in other quarters of Mexico--especially where there are strong doubts about Zedillo's abilities as a leader.

Until now, the Zedillo administration, with public support, has been able to pass most of the blame for the country's ills onto the previous administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. This has given Zedillo the freedom to make progress on some key fronts. He has adjusted the economy to a devalued peso and brought about the start of a recovery. He has successfully negotiated an agreement among Mexico's major political parties to achieve political reform. He has strengthened the muscle of the judiciary branch by reconstituting the supreme court and purging the ranks of the corrupted federal police. He has called in the military to cleanse Mexico City's police force. He claims to have captured the hired guns who killed Colosio and another prominent politician.

These accomplishments are undeniable, but Zedillo is still far from achieving success. Jobs lost during the severe economic recession have not been replaced. Businesses that went belly up after the peso was devalued in December 1994 have not reopened. His handling of the economy has drawn strong political opposition, even from within his own party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). A persistent wave of criminal violence, fed, in large part, by drug trafficking, plagues Mexico's cities and towns.

Then there are Mexico's two continuing insurrections. In Chiapas, talks with Subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatistas have been suspended. In southern and central Mexico, an especially violent revolutionary group, known as the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), recently staged a series of daring attacks in six Mexican states, leaving 16 dead.

Sitting in his office at Los Pinos, Zedillo, trim and fit, discussed these enormous problems sounding more like a scientist than a politician--but never ducking an opportunity to take on his critics. Yet, for many Mexicans, the question is whether their president has the fire to exercise the kind of authority needed to govern Mexico.

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Question: You have made a distinction between the EPR and the Zapatistas. And, in fact, you have a strange type of official relationship with the Chiapas group. The government allows an armed group of people who want to overthrow the government to organize tours for Hollywood movie-makers. What is going on?

Answer: Well, in Chiapas we are half-way solving the problem. We want to reach an agreement in which the government accepts the just social and political claims of this group and, in return, they disarm and join the political route to participate in the civic life of the country. In between, there is no violence, they keep their arms and are free to organize their propaganda activities.

Q: Violence, however, has made a comeback and many analysts believe the national-security apparatus in Mexico has collapsed since 1994.

A: Violence has many varieties and is surfacing. But this is happening not only in Mexico. There seems to be a new wave of violence worldwide--sometimes even promoted by the media. In Mexico, we have had political assassinations, and we don't know yet what were the causes for those murders, because they are extremely complicated cases. The investigation continues its course. Regarding violence perpetrated by common criminals, the explanation is that our laws have been too lenient and our institutions have failed because they have not grown as the country has grown. Some of these institutions have been corrupted. So we're adjusting our laws to the times we are living in and reforming our institutions.

Q: Regarding the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, there is a genuine concern of a sector of society, but some people are also using it for political gain. Do you see it that way?

A: I have always condemned the sensationalization and the extra-legal pressures used in this case. Almost every week, there is a new hypothesis of the killing. Everybody has the right to express an opinion, but sensationalism and extra-legal pressures dilute the search for truth and the achievement of justice. Some people would like me to become prosecutor and judge; to do so would be illegal and useless. What I have done, as president, is to ensure the absolute independence of the judiciary system . . . .

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