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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Photo and letter stir speculation on missing Mexico political figure

The mystery over the whereabouts of a former Mexican presidential candidate deepened when a photograph and letter purportedly written by him showed up on Twitter and then all over the Mexican media.

July 27, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — The man is naked above the waist, blindfolded with a wide band of fabric. His bearded face appears to match that of the politician on the cover of the magazine he holds up for the camera.

Is "Don Diego" alive?

The 2-month-old mystery over the whereabouts of former Mexican presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos deepened this week when a photograph and letter purportedly written by him weeks ago showed up on Twitter and then all over the Mexican media.

The photo and letter were posted Monday by journalist Jose Cardenas, who said he received them and a separate statement from the purported kidnappers. The statement mocked failed attempts to find Fernandez de Cevallos and said his captors had not reduced their ransom demand, which was not specified.

Fernandez de Cevallos, 69, is one of the country's most powerful political operators, and his disappearance in May from his ranch in central Mexico has fed a national guessing game.

Some speculate that Fernandez de Cevallos, a lawyer who ran for president in 1994, was seized by Mexico's drug cartels, perhaps as a threat to President Felipe Calderon, a fellow member of the conservative National Action Party. Others theorize that he was taken by left-wing extremists. Or killed over business dealings. Skeptics asked whether Fernandez de Cevallos staged his own disappearance.

The latest clues do little to settle the matter.

The blindfolded man in the photo holds up the May 23 edition of the weekly Proceso magazine with Fernandez de Cevallos on the cover, apparently to show that the former senator survived his May 14 disappearance. But the image does not prove Fernandez is still alive.

The two-page, handwritten letter, dated June 10, is addressed to Fernandez de Cevallos' son, also named Diego. It describes the "hell" of captivity and urges the family to raise the ransom quickly. The letter does not identify the kidnappers or cite a ransom amount.

"I'm asking you to do as much as you can as fast as you can," the letter says. "If you can't arrive at what they are asking, you can offer an approach that demonstrates a willingness to negotiate."

The writer says he has lost weight and suffered chest pains. The letter is signed "Your father."

Mexican authorities had no immediate comment. Federal officials had previously called off their investigation, saying they did not want to harm the family's bid to win Fernandez de Cevallos' release.

The disappearance has generated intriguing, if unconfirmed, tidbits.

Fellow politicians said Fernandez de Cevallos had been fitted with a high-tech tracking chip, planted under the skin, as a check against kidnappers. The devices are popular among Mexico's rich and powerful. One theory holds that bloody scissors found at the scene of the disappearance may have been used to cut out the implant.

Cardenas, a radio news show host and columnist at the daily El Universal newspaper, reported last week that Fernandez de Cevallos' kidnappers belonged to a guerrilla group in central Mexico. Without naming sources, Cardenas said captors demanded $50 million, but that Fernandez de Cevallos' family had so far been able to collect $30 million.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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