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Mexico's Aguilar Zinser Killed in Road Accident

The leftist activist and academic was a former U.N. ambassador under Fox. He began his career with the PRI, but helped unseat it in 2000.

June 06, 2005|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a leftist gadfly who campaigned for democracy during Mexico's era of one-party rule and later mobilized diplomatic resistance to the U.S. invasion of Iraq while serving as his country's ambassador to the United Nations, died Sunday in an automobile accident.

Police in Morelos state said the 55-year-old academic and politician apparently lost control of a sport utility vehicle on a curve, jumped a highway divider and collided with a bus traveling in the opposite direction. The accident occurred between Mexico City and Tepoztlan, 45 miles to the south where he had a home.

Aguilar Zinser was a leading figure in the opposition movement that broke the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year grip on the presidency in 2000. But he became better known as the diplomat whose criticism of Mexico's powerful northern neighbor grew too strident for his boss, President Vicente Fox, who pushed him out in late 2003.

In a speech that infuriated American officials and helped prompt his dismissal, Aguilar Zinser declared that the U.S. considered Mexico "its backyard" and treated it as an inferior.

Like many politically ambitious Mexicans of his generation, Aguilar Zinser gravitated to the PRI-led establishment as a young man. After getting his law degree in Mexico and a master's in public administration at Harvard, he became a protege of President Luis Echeverria, heading a think tank set up by the Mexican leader to promote his vision of the nation as a Third World bulwark against U.S. influence.

But during the 1980s, Aguilar Zinser moved away from the PRI and was drawn to Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, a leftist who split from the PRI to run for president in 1988. By 1991, Aguilar Zinser was organizing anti-PRI, pro-democracy citizens groups. He was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1994 as a member of Cardenas' Democratic Revolution Party and to the Senate in 1997 as an independent.

As Fox mounted his campaign for the presidency, Aguilar Zinser found himself attracted by the conservative rancher's brash campaign style, even though the two men had little in common ideologically. Aguilar Zinser teamed with Jorge Castaneda, another influential leftist academic, to work for Fox, and the two helped him draw support across the political spectrum.

"Aguilar Zinser played a crucial role in the struggle for democracy in Mexico," political commentator Denise Dresser said. "He was on the right side of that battle, however strident, passionate and difficult he was."

As president, Fox appointed Aguilar Zinser his national security advisor, in charge of coordinating police, military and intelligence agencies. The job had not previously existed in Mexico, and Aguilar Zinser grew frustrated fighting other agency heads for influence.

After little more than a year on the job, he was named ambassador to the United Nations, becoming what he later called an "undiplomatic diplomat." As the United States moved toward an invasion of Iraq in early 2003, Mexico was a nonpermanent member of the 15-nation Security Council. That gave Aguilar Zinser a pivotal role in the U.N. debate over Iraq.

Using his legal skills, he took apart U.S.-backed resolutions on Iraq paragraph by paragraph to question apparent conflicts with international law.

"This became kind of a pattern in the [Security] Council," he told The Times in an interview that year. "They all knew they just had to wait and I would throw them the book."

His political skills also came into play in the Security Council. He and then-Chilean Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes persuaded some of the 10 nonpermanent members to join forces to influence the Iraq debate: Six of them decided to withhold their votes on the resolution seeking the United Nations' blessing to invade Iraq.

Facing a shortfall of support, the United States withdrew the resolution and invaded Iraq without U.N. backing.

At the time, Aguilar Zinser's actions played well in Mexico, where public opinion was largely against the war. Fox repeatedly assured the diplomat of his support. But after the March 2003 invasion, domestic critics of Mexico's opposition to the war gained Fox's ear, and suddenly Aguilar Zinser was out of favor.

In October 2003, President Bush reportedly told Fox that he had a problem with the ambassador. The next month, Aguilar Zinser was out of a job. After being told he would have to leave by year's end, he resigned. He returned to Mexico as a writer, television host and commentator, independent politician and critic of the Fox administration.

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