MEXICO CITY — A judge has ordered the arrest of a top aide to former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on charges that he illegally amassed a fortune while in office, a judicial official said Wednesday.
The arrest warrant marked the first time that Justo Ceja, Salinas' private secretary, had been formally accused of a crime. No information was provided on how officials believe that Ceja acquired the money. But Mexican newspapers for months have reported that he was under investigation for helping drug traffickers.
Ceja disappeared two years ago and has not responded to summonses to appear for questioning, the attorney general's office has said. He is not known to have an attorney.
The arrest warrant was issued amid a flurry of activity by authorities investigating the family of Salinas, who was a popular president and close U.S. ally during his 1988-94 term. He fell into disgrace after leaving office as an economic crisis and allegations of widespread corruption sullied his administration's reputation. The former president has denied wrongdoing.
Ceja, a slight man with a walrus mustache who rose from a poor childhood to be Salinas' right-hand man, is being sought on charges of "illicit enrichment," acquiring wealth inexplicably, said the senior official.
The arrest warrant stemmed from an investigation made public earlier this year by the Mexican comptroller's office, the official watchdog of bureaucrats, press reports said Wednesday. In that probe, investigators discovered that Ceja had deposited about $7 million in his bank accounts during six years--an amount that did not square with his $8,000-a-month salary.
Nearly half the money was deposited during Ceja's last year on the job, the comptroller said.
Officials said Ceja had not skimmed the money from government coffers. But they left open the question: Where did it come from?
The case was passed on to the federal attorney general's office, which obtained the arrest warrant in recent days, according to press reports and the judicial official. Judges often issue such warrants secretly to avoid tipping off a suspect, the official said.
The Mexico City daily El Universal said another warrant could be issued soon stemming from an investigation by the federal attorney general's office into Ceja's alleged ties to drug traffickers.
The warrant for Ceja was issued as the drawn-out investigations into Salinas' inner circle appeared to be picking up speed.
Swiss police announced last week that a two-year investigation had produced evidence that Raul Salinas de Gortari, the former president's brother, had received money from drug traffickers. Their findings have been turned over to the Swiss attorney general, who will decide whether to prosecute.
The Swiss have discovered more than $130 million in bank accounts belonging to Raul Salinas, who is in jail in Mexico facing murder charges. Raul Salinas' attorneys have said he is innocent of the allegations.
A Mexican judge also issued an arrest warrant Wednesday for Juan Manuel Gomez Gutierrez, an accountant who is accused of helping Raul Salinas hide his money. But news reports said the accountant had vanished.
Finally, authorities have obtained a new arrest warrant for a key judicial figure from the Salinas administration: former Deputy Atty. Gen. Mario Ruiz Massieu, who is accused of taking bribes to permit drug trafficking. The warrant could be used to seek his extradition from the United States, to which he fled in 1995.
Mexico has failed in previous attempts to extradite Ruiz Massieu. But it apparently is now counting on powerful testimony from a former federal police chief, Adrian Carrera Fuentes, who has reportedly said in a plea bargain that he passed drug bribes to Ruiz Massieu. The former deputy attorney general denies the charges.
Some political analysts said prosecutors speeded up their work on the cases because they were nearing a deadline for presenting evidence against Raul Salinas. He is charged with ordering the 1994 killing of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a former top politician and brother of the former deputy attorney general.
But other analysts speculated that the activity is politically motivated. In the three-level chessboard that is Mexican politics, they said, the judicial activity could be a message from the government of President Ernesto Zedillo to his still-powerful predecessor, who lives in self-imposed exile in Ireland. "I have the impression these are political maneuvers instead of an effort to seek justice," said political scientist Sergio Aguayo. "They have to immobilize Carlos Salinas and remind him that he could be prosecuted."