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Opposition Cries Foul as PRI Ends Investigation of State Firm

Mexico: Ruling-party deputies approve report showing no high-level corruption at food company. Critics say move belies recent reform effort.


MEXICO CITY — Just days after this nation's ruling party passed sweeping internal reforms, opposition leaders and independent analysts charged that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, took a leap backward Thursday.

The PRI majority in Mexico's lower Chamber of Deputies officially ended an investigation that many Mexicans viewed as a crucial test of government accountability--a 10-month legislative probe of a multibillion-dollar government food-distribution company. The firm was suspected of widespread corruption in past PRI administrations.

Amid opposition charges of a cover-up, the deputies voted 219-129 along party lines to send to President Ernesto Zedillo a legislative report finding no evidence of high-level corruption and listing only isolated irregularities in the operations of the National Food Staples Co., known by its Spanish acronym, Conasupo.

The investigation included questions about the role Zedillo played, while serving as federal budget director, in a controversial $7-million Conasupo payment to one of its suppliers. The commission report cleared him of any wrongdoing.

It also found insufficient evidence to support allegations of widespread fraud and endangering public health in Conasupo's purchase and supply of billions of dollars worth of subsidized tortillas, flour, powdered milk and other staples to Mexico's poor.

Staging an opposition walkout in the commission's final session, Deputy Javier Gutierrez Vidal of the National Action Party declared: "In this case, the PRI is showing its true face--the face that pretended to cleanse itself at its [national party] assembly last weekend and that today shows itself being the same as before."

Deputy Manuel Hinojosa, the investigating commission's PRI chairman, defended the report: "We can't invent things. . . . If they don't like the results, well, that's not our fault."

During Thursday's heated, daylong parliamentary debate, a succession of opposition deputies charged the PRI with "sweeping its dirt under the rug."

Some accused it of limiting the investigation to shield senior Conasupo officials, some of whom also were PRI officials. Others asserted that the commission, dominated by PRI lawmakers, spent insufficient time and resources investigating the now-jailed elder brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

"We're not covering up for anyone. We will fight corruption wherever we find it," responded PRI Deputy Juan Manuel Cruz Acevedo.

Raul Salinas, who served as a senior Conasupo official between 1985 and 1992, is charged with illegal enrichment and masterminding the 1994 killing of the PRI's second-ranking official. The party formally expelled him after his arrest last year.

Stung by his case and key election defeats last year, the PRI held a national assembly to reform itself last weekend. It approved hundreds of measures that leaders said were meant to modernize the PRI's image, curb corruption and refocus the party's identity after more than six decades in power.

"I think [the Conasupo report] shows the PRI feels sufficiently strong to do both things at once--talk about reform and protect its own interests," said Emilio Zebadua, political science professor at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico.

The commission recommended that Zedillo's administration further investigate several questionable transactions, including Conasupo's purchase of thousands of tons of inferior Chinese beans and the disappearance of thousands more tons of other commodities in the 10 years examined by the commission's external auditors.

But the panel concluded that, during Raul Salinas' tenure, Conasupo's importation of tons of powdered milk--reportedly contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986--posed no significant threat to public health.

Among the harshest critics of the Chamber of Deputies vote to close the investigation of the large federal corporation was Deputy Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. As an independent commission member earlier this year, he publicly questioned Zedillo's role in the $7-million Conasupo payment to one of its corn-flour suppliers. "This was a political decision to close the investigation," Aguilar said. "It's a travesty."

Meanwhile, in Houston, in a much-watched U.S. federal case that critics say underscores corruption problems in both Mexico and the United States, a former insider said Thursday that the Gulf drug cartel used U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service buses to ship thousands of pounds of cocaine across the U.S.-Mexican border.

Juan Antonio Ortiz, who ran the cartel's U.S. transport system, also said the cartel routinely paid off Mexican police and other officials, Reuters news service reported.

Ortiz, testifying in the trial of Juan Garcia Abrego, whom authorities accuse of being the cartel leader, said the crime organization began using INS buses to ship drugs in 1986 and kept it up until 1990, when an INS staffer working with the drug dealers was caught.

The INS buses were not checked at stops in Texas where other vehicles routinely were scrutinized for drugs, Ortiz said.

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