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Mexican Governor Survives Attempt on His Life; 2 Guards Also Injured

Police in Oaxaca say six assailants fired on Jose Murat's SUV. He blames unnamed 'mafias.'

March 19, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — The governor of Oaxaca, one of Mexico's poorest and most violent states, survived an assassination attempt Thursday when assailants waiting in ambush fired at least 30 rounds from automatic weapons into his sport utility vehicle as he drove to a breakfast meeting in the state capital.

Gov. Jose Murat suffered a blow to the head when he braked and hit the windshield. His two bodyguards were also injured as they shielded their boss, hustled him out of the vehicle and shoved him under a parked car while bullets continued to fly.

Speaking to reporters after his release from a hospital, Murat accused unnamed "mafias" of trying to kill him. Pressed for specifics, he said he was talking about "municipal and state bosses whose fingers we have cut off" -- an expression meaning stripped of their power -- and who have "lost their money."

The vague accusation left room for a wide range of suspects. Oaxaca is beset by disputes over land rights, drug production and trafficking, and the smuggling of illegal immigrants from Central America. Human rights groups allege that state police protect the drug lords.

Apparently distrustful of his own police force, Murat asked for federal intervention to catch the gunmen. By late afternoon, federal police had set up four checkpoints on the outskirts of Oaxaca city, 70 agents of the attorney general's office were combing the streets and an army helicopter was flying overhead, seeking two getaway trucks.

Police said at least six assailants staged the ambush, firing 9-millimeter pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles from two sides as Murat's gray Nissan neared the Victoria Hotel in a hilly, wooded area on the northeastern edge of the city.

One of Murat's guards fell during the attack, suffering a head injury, and was in a coma. The other was shot in the left arm and right thigh.

Less than an hour later, as the governor was being treated, an anonymous male caller told the hospital switchboard: "We know the governor survived, but next time we are going to kill him," a state official said.

President Vicente Fox condemned the ambush as an assault on democracy, and leaders of major political parties voiced outrage. Murat, a 54-year-old career politician of Iraqi descent, is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which controlled the federal government for 71 years until Fox's election in 2000.

In Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico, gunplay is often used to settle disputes, but attacks on senior officials are rare. The last such attempt occurred in 2001, when a former police officer shot Chihuahua state Gov. Patricio Martinez, who survived.

Murat, who is often mentioned as a possible contender for the presidency in 2006, said he had received 15 death threats in his nearly six years as governor. His teenage daughter escaped a kidnapping attempt last year -- the crime was never solved -- and has since left the country.

Before his election, Murat served several terms in the federal Congress. He has visited Los Angeles and other U.S. cities to lobby for political and financial support of Oaxaca's large diaspora of emigrants.

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