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THE WORLD

Mexico gets new minister of interior

Calderon picks his chief of staff for the top Cabinet post, a traditional springboard to the presidency.

January 17, 2008|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — At 36, Spanish-born Juan Camilo Mourino was already the quiet power behind the throne in Mexico. He controlled the calendar of President Felipe Calderon and appointed the top deputies of each member of Calderon's Cabinet.

On Wednesday, the green-eyed man known by the nickname "Ivan" officially became the second most powerful man in Mexico. Calderon named him interior secretary, the top Cabinet post and a traditional springboard to the presidency.

Mourino was born in Madrid, the scion of a wealthy Spanish family that moved to Mexico when he was 7. He remained a Spanish citizen until age 18.

His rise to power, achieved in little more than a decade in politics, is an unlikely story in a country where Spaniards are still linked with empire and conquest.

Mourino has the youthful good looks and European features most commonly associated here with TV actors. But before Wednesday, few Mexicans had heard his voice. Even among Mexico's political class, he's an unknown quantity.

"This guy hasn't done anything in his life to deserve the crown jewel of the Cabinet," said Federico Estevez, a political scientist. "He's a blank page. Appointing him is an incredibly bold and risky move by Calderon."

As Calderon's chief of staff for 13 months, Mourino has been described in a handful of profiles as the president's behind-the-scenes "fireman" and "negotiator."

"He never speaks in public events and only whispers in the president's ear or to the Cabinet members who stand close to him and try and greet him," the newspaper El Universal wrote in a profile Wednesday.

Mourino takes over a sprawling bureaucracy that is a vestige of Mexico's authoritarian past. The Interior Ministry, known as Gobernacion in Spanish, monitors many key aspects of the country's political and cultural life, including domestic intelligence gathering, immigration, and relations between the president's office and Mexico's 31 states.

Gobernacion also controls disaster relief, television commercials, movie ratings and the official news agency, Notimex.

"As a Mexican it is an honor and a privilege to assume this new responsibility," Mourino said at a news conference, looking somewhat tentative in his new public role. "Mr. President, you can count on my loyalty."

Mourino's family arrived in Mexico in the late 1970s and made its fortune in gas stations in the Gulf state of Campeche. But the Mourinos never lost their ties to Spain -- his father owns Celta de Vigo, one of Spain's leading soccer teams.

According to news reports, Mourino was kidnapped in the 1990s and his family paid a million-dollar ransom for his release.

Entering politics at the behest of his father, Mourino first ran for office in 1997, winning a seat in the Campeche state legislature.

In 2000, he was elected to the federal Congress on the National Action Party's list of at-large candidates. Mexican law requires federal officials to be Mexican citizens by birth -- Mourino argued that he met the legal requirements because his mother is Mexican.

Still in his 20s, he became an ally of Calderon, then the leader of the PAN's congressional delegation.

Mourino tied his fortunes to Calderon. He managed the campaign for the 2006 PAN presidential nomination in which Calderon defeated President Vicente Fox's choice as successor, then-Interior Secretary Santiago Creel.

"Calderon gave Mourino a lot of the credit for defeating Creel," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political scientist. "It was there that he won his loyalty."

In the 2006 presidential election, Mourino ran Calderon's campaign "war room" and was one of the architects of the candidate's stunning come-from-behind victory against leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Even before Calderon took office in December 2006, Mourino headed his transition team. His appointment as chief of staff quickly cemented his reputation as Calderon's right-hand man.

Like the American political advisor Dick Morris, Mourino used data from frequent polling to shape policy decisions. "The Calderon people measure things, obsessively," Daniel Lizarraga wrote in a profile of Mourino in the magazine Proceso this month.

In Calderon's inner circle, people celebrate Mourino's "cleverness, his political instincts and his ability to solve problems," Lizarraga wrote. "Those who are not his friends call him authoritarian, Machiavellian, and say he controls a vast network of influence that includes legislators, affluent businessmen, media moguls, party leaders and governors."

Some speculate that Calderon is grooming Mourino to be president.

The next election is in 2012, and Calderon is prohibited from seeking a second term. Before Wednesday, the list of potential successors included no loyal "Calderonistas," said Estevez. Calderon has now clearly positioned his protege as a potential president.

In a rare interview, granted in December 2006 to the Spanish newspaper Faro de Vigo, Mourino did not discount the idea that he might be Mexico's president one day.

"The truth is, I've never given myself that goal," he said. "Things have just happened. Politics is part will, part having goals and part circumstance. It's not just your decision. It depends on a lot of things."

Mourino's Spanish birth may stand in the way of such ambitions. Public resistance is likely, analysts say, as are legal challenges. Last year, the columnist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa of the newspaper Reforma questioned whether Mourino should be allowed to hold any elected or Cabinet position, saying he was not "Mexican by birth."

--

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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