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Politician's disappearance rivets Mexico

In a country inured to killings and kidnappings, the disappearance of Diego Fernandez de Cevallos has horrified Mexicans — especially the ruling class. It has dominated headlines, talk shows, conversations.

May 18, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Police officers chat on the road that leads to Diego Fernandez de Cevallos' ranch house.
Police officers chat on the road that leads to Diego Fernandez de Cevallos'… (Alexandre Meneghini / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — The bloodied SUV was discovered, abandoned in the middle of the night and doors askew, at the gates of his sprawling ranch.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, Mexico's brash-mouthed, cigar-chomping political powerbroker, had vanished.

In a country inured to killings and kidnappings, the mysterious disappearance of Fernandez de Cevallos in Saturday's wee hours has riveted and horrified Mexicans — especially the ruling class. It has dominated headlines, talk shows, conversation on buses.

"If this could happen to him," everyone seems to be saying, "then no one is safe."

Rumors and guesses about what actually happened fly like dust ahead of a rainstorm. If he was kidnapped, this is the highest-profile abduction in many years.

He has been reported dead and reported alive (receiving treatment in a hospital). No body has been found. No ransom demand has been announced. His family issued a statement begging his presumed captors to get in touch: The family was ready to negotiate.

Fernandez de Cevallos, 69, is one of the pillars of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, of President Felipe Calderon, who swiftly ordered a team of government public security agencies to find the missing politician. In helicopters and with sniffer dogs, police are scouring the countryside of bean fields and alfalfa around the ranch in Queretaro, about two hours northwest of Mexico City.

Adding to the mystery, Fernandez de Cevallos seems to have gone off to his fate quietly. Investigators have found no evidence of a shootout where his abandoned vehicle was discovered, only a small amount of blood that they confirmed was the same type as the politician's. The blood stained a pair of scissors that relatives said Fernandez de Cevallos used to trim his trademark bushy gray beard.

Fernandez de Cevallos was more feared than beloved, and if he was the victim of kidnapping, as the evidence suggests, the list of suspects is a long one.

Drug traffickers who have been targeting police and local officials for the last two years may have decided to send a chilling message to Calderon's government. Until now, figures of Fernandez de Cevallos' stature have been largely untouched. But with the drug war-related death toll soaring beyond 23,000 since the president took office in December 2006, traffickers have gained the upper hand in some parts of Mexico and act with increasing brazenness.

Kidnapping rings active across the country sometimes operate in cahoots with drug gangs, and sometimes on their own purely for profit.

Speculation has also drifted to leftist guerrilla movements that in the past were responsible for notorious, politically motivated abductions. The most active of such groups, the Popular Revolutionary Army, issued a statement distancing itself from the disappearance and saying it "felt the pain" of Fernandez de Cevallos' family.

Fernandez de Cevallos has numerous political and professional enemies. He is a controversial figure, a hard-charging politician who mentored the pragmatic, deal-making wing of the PAN. He was the conservative party's presidential candidate in 1994, inexplicably dropping out of active campaigning in the final weeks before the vote. He lost amid speculation that he deliberately threw the race.

Still, he is seen as instrumental in the development of democracy in Mexico, guiding the PAN to victory in 2000 and ending seven decades of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Calderon called him a "close friend" and, undoubtedly, the case will be on the Mexican president's mind this week as he meets in Washington with President Obama. But, in fact, Fernandez de Cevallos' wing frequently spars with the more dogmatic PAN faction that Calderon represents.

The same belligerence he manifested in politics he applied to his practice of law. Fernandez de Cevallos made a fortune representing entrepreneurs and corporations, sometimes in lawsuits against the state even as he served as a senator. That led to charges of conflict of interest, charges at which he essentially thumbed his nose.

He was famously criticized in 2005 for pushing ahead with construction of a highway in Jalisco state that led to the home of his girlfriend, a former beauty queen less than half his age.

Whatever the motives and explanations that eventually emerge for Fernandez de Cevallos' disappearance, the case has transfixed Mexicans and, for many, confirmed their worst fears about the violence and impunity engulfing their country.

"This is a very powerful person — the boss," candy vendor Ruben Galindo said Tuesday, referring to Fernandez de Cevallos by his oft-used nickname. Whoever took the politician "has to be someone who is even heavier. It's not going to be a common robber."

"We're experiencing so much violence," he said. "I don't think this is going to end well."

wilkinson@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ken Ellingwood contributed to this report.

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