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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO

Meanwhile, a Scandal Without Sex

Carlos Salinas attacks the government's case against his brother, accused of protecting drug traffickers.

October 01, 1998|RAYMUNDO RIVA PALACIO | Raymundo Riva Palacio is a political columnist for the daily El Financiero in Mexico City

A new chapter in the confrontation between former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo has surfaced in the already convulsed political life of Mexico.

A report published last week in the New York Times, based on a leaked partial copy of a Swiss police report and on news already published in Mexico, charges that Raul Salinas, the brother of the former president, received money from the Cali drug cartel in exchange for protection.

As it has since February 1995, when Raul Salinas was arrested and charged with masterminding the murder of his former brother-in-law and general secretary of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the Salinas family continues to face accusations. And, once again, the clan's response has been blunt.

The rebuttal came from the family's strongest member, the former president. Carlos Salinas, speaking through his lawyer, Mariano Albor, said that accusations leveled by Swiss investigators against his brother are false and rest on the words of witnesses who are criminals and have either been paid off or offered deals in their jail sentences. If the Mexican government accepted the accusations of these criminals as true, Salinas averred, it would be in violation of both international law and the Mexican Constitution. Furthermore, Salinas claimed, if the Mexican government acts on the Swiss accusations, it would affect many members of the current Mexican government.

The former president said that the false accusations would mainly hurt current Atty. Gen. Jorge Madrazo, who "worked for the past administration in a key position that was directly linked to the combat against drug trafficking."

Salinas' aggressive response is unprecedented in his ongoing confrontation with the Zedillo administration. While he singles out Madrazo, he implies that the Swiss charges "affect everyone in the government"--meaning from his administration on.

It is not accidental that in his second letter within a week, Salinas requests that the five attorneys general who served during his administration testify about actions they took against drug trafficking when they were in office. Obviously, the testimony of each would fortify the Salinas family's defense. And it would put the Mexican government on a collision course with the Swiss investigators.

Salinas' tactics in this instance are perhaps the most important he has attempted since he went on a hunger strike back in 1995. But the context is new. The Ruiz Massieu case is now closed and the judge must sentence Raul Salinas sometime between November and December. The bets among those who know judiciary procedures are that there is a 50-50 chance that he may be found guilty as charged. However, up until today, every single prosecution charge against Raul Salinas has backfired.

To date he has been cleared of money laundering and tax evasion, but there are three more charges pending: inexplicable enrichment, use of false identity documents and making false statements and masterminding the murder of Ruiz Massieu. By now, the first charge may already have expired, and the time he spent in prison should suffice to purge the second charge.

On the murder charge, the case presented by the prosecution seems weak, based more on hearsay than fact--notwithstanding claims from the attorney general's office that the case against him is solid. Thus it is likely that Raul Salinas may be freed. That would be a devastating political blow to Zedillo, who based his image as an impartial and honest president on the arrest and prosecution of Raul Salinas.

If Zedillo is to survive politically, he needs to keep Raul Salinas imprisoned. To that end, the prosecution is working full tilt on a new accusation, charging Raul Salinas with fiscal fraud in the amount of $26 million. If that accusation sticks, Raul Salinas would remain in jail while Zedillo ponders the outcome of the Swiss investigation.

Zedillo's government has kept the pressure on the Salinases over the past three months, leaking accusations of money laundering charges against Raul Salinas, threatening to charge other members of the family with crimes, arresting former partners of Raul Salinas and, not the least, raiding a printing house owned by Adriana Salinas, Carlos and Raul's sister, which had become the headquarters for Raul Salinas' defense.

Challenging Mexico's attorney general to repudiate the credibility of the witnesses in the Swiss case, Carlos Salinas seeks to place him on the side of Raul Salinas' defense. In passing, the former president points out that a guilty verdict against Raul Salinas would taint the Zedillo administration as well. He makes it clear that he may also have damaging information about current Mexican officials.

And he may just be right. Madrazo, the attorney general, has admitted that drug traffickers have been able to infiltrate his office. The level of infiltration is reported to have reached not only the attorney general's office but the army and even people close to President Zedillo.

Carlos Salinas' bet is daring. He wants to make the defense of his brother an issue for the Mexican state. If he wins, he helps salvage his reputation. He hasn't much to lose, since he's already touched bottom.

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