MEXICO CITY — For three decades, Fernando Gutierrez Barrios was Mexico's spymaster. He helped Fidel Castro--and also helped U.S. agents monitor Cuba. At home, Gutierrez Barrios directed the security police--feared agents who "disappeared" scores of guerrillas.
Gutierrez Barrios has been a repressor. A back-room negotiator. But now, at 71, he is taking on perhaps his oddest role: democrat.
For the first time in 70 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is letting its rank and file choose its presidential candidate. Gutierrez Barrios has been called out of retirement to run the primary.
Why would a party seeking democratic credentials turn to a man often called Mexico's J. Edgar Hoover? The choice says a lot about the arrival of democracy in the PRI--and about Mexico.
Forget the young, Ivy League-educated PRI politicians who have wowed Wall Street in recent years. The return of Gutierrez Barrios--that's Don Fernando for the millions of Mexicans who fear or respect him--has been greeted in the PRI with relief and enthusiasm.
"From the point of view of democratic idealism, it seems crazy. But from the practical point of view, it's perfect," said Enrique Krauze, a prominent historian and PRI critic. "Yeltsin was a Communist. Gorbachev too. . . . You need a strong man to reform from inside."
Gutierrez Barrios' latest assignment is no less daunting than his confrontations with bomb-planting guerrillas. If the PRI primary is perceived as unfair, the long-ruling party could splinter. At stake is the credibility of the process--and of the elegant spy with the white, 1950s-style pompadour who has been a pillar of the Mexican system.
Opposition leaders question whether Gutierrez Barrios will guarantee impartiality. But experts say he is a rebel-fighter with a cause: his country.
"He's totally institutional," says George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. "If you cut his wrist, he bleeds red, white and green"--the national colors.
Gutierrez Barrios became Mexico's silent strongman almost by accident. As a young military officer, he was detached in 1952 to a new national security agency, which evolved into what is known here as the political police--the Federal Security Directorate.
"I went to the security area as just another military commission. With the passage of time, . . . first I was attracted to, then became passionate about, politics," Gutierrez Barrios said in a rare interview with a Mexican reporter in 1995. He was to spend three decades in the intelligence agency or overseeing it.
They were turbulent years. The Cold War raged, and Mexico's one-party rule was shaken by demonstrations and attacks by left-wing guerrillas. Gutierrez Barrios' forces responded by spying on protesters, tapping the telephones of everyone from dissidents to PRI officials, and eliminating rebels.
'He Knows . . . What Happened to My Son'
Rosario Ibarra, 72, a tiny, vivacious widow in blue jeans, has not forgiven Gutierrez Barrios for those years. Her 21-year-old son, Jesus, a member of a small urban guerrilla band, was arrested April 18, 1975, in Monterrey. That was the last his mother heard of him.
She has repeatedly begged Gutierrez Barrios for information, most recently when he was interior minister from 1988 to 1993. She recalls that he was unfailingly courteous--and closemouthed. "He knows perfectly well what happened to my son," Ibarra said in an interview in her Mexico City living room, a macabre shrine hung with posters of "disappeared" guerrillas.
She doesn't know Gutierrez Barrios' exact role in fighting the guerrillas but said: "If he didn't order things personally . . . he still acted badly. He covered up crimes, wherever [the order] came from. Disappearing people is a crime."
She is hardly alone in her suspicions. Gutierrez Barrios and his political police have been tied to some of the bloodiest chapters of recent Mexican history, such as the massacre of protesters in Mexico City in 1968 and a deadly attack by government thugs on a student march in 1971.
An unusual resume for a democrat.
But analysts say Gutierrez Barrios' legendary toughness is exactly what suits him for the PRI job. Only a strongman can rein in wily politicians accustomed to dirty tricks, the argument goes.
Naming Gutierrez Barrios "reflects the enormous fragility of the PRI," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist. "Who else can force people to accept the [electoral] laws, stop the [PRI] governors from playing dirty games, stop the caciques [local power bosses]?"
Well Schooled in the Art of Negotiation
Part of Gutierrez Barrios' power stems from the perception that he knows everyone's secrets--this in a country where corruption has long been a daily tool of politics.
"Everyone fears and respects the man who knows where the bodies are buried. Everyone fears the J. Edgar Hoover of Mexico," said Delal Baer, a Mexico expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.