A Second Assassination Shakes Mexico

Killing of a ruling-party leader may be a product of internal party divisions over democratic reforms

MEXICO'S second major political killing in six months has provoked uncertainty and suspicion about the government and ruling party just as the country seemed back on the road to stability after a largely peaceful presidential vote.

The assassination Wednesday morning of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the No. 2 man in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, comes only a half-year after former PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in a Tijuana neighborhood.

Like the Colosio murder - an event that painfully shook Mexican politics and society - the Ruiz Massieu killing is seen by many as the product of an internal party power struggle over democratic reforms that could end the PRI's 65-year rule.

The overriding message, says Roderic Camp, a Mexican specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans, is a stern opposition to even mild political reform.

``If this is a political killing, there is little doubt it is achieving its goal of attempting to destabilize the situation again,'' Mr. Camp says. ``This is exactly what [President Carlos] Salinas [de Gortari] and the government did not want to happen.''

Ruiz Massieu was a close friend of Mr. Salinas from childhood, and as the PRI's designated leader in the incoming Chamber of Deputies, had been expected to help push through a new round of reforms as part of Mexico's continuing democratization.

Ruiz Massieu was shot in the neck by a lone gunman outside a PRI office building a half-block from the city's main downtown thoroughfare, the Paseo de la Reforma. A young man, reportedly from Acapulco in Ruiz Massieu's home state of Guerrero, was arrested at the scene.

The killing in broad daylight, which took place in the shadow of the giant Monument to the Revolution, reopens the deep wounds left by the Colosio murder and brings into question the future of the PRI, often referred to as the country's official party.

Some observers interpret the assassination as part of an effort to undermine a smooth transition from the Salinas administration to that of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, who will take office Dec. 1, and a message to Salinas not to meddle in the upcoming administration.

As the PRI's secretary general, Ruiz Massieu was acknowledged as someone able to bridge the gap between the party's two main blocs -

its liberal faction known as the ``technocrats'' and the conservative wing, often derisively referred to as the ``dinosaurs.''

Well-concealed party struggles

After the Colosio assassination, the party's warring factions put their differences to rest and closed ranks around Zedillo, the replacement candidate.

But with the election over and the PRI retaining power, the Ruiz Massieu murder is a bitter reminder of the well-concealed but ongoing struggles that rage within the party and the government.

``Despite the election's results, there is a very serious internal crisis in the PRI, a product of opposing factions as well as a society demanding democracy,'' says Luis Javier Garrido, an author of numerous books on the PRI.

``Nonetheless, it is simplistic to say that this is merely the outcome of reformers vs. conservatives. Rather, in a society lacking democratic structures, this is the manner for settling differences,'' he says.

A hard-liner as governor of the State of Guerrero from 1987 to 1993, Ruiz Massieu was more closely aligned to the conservatives. But because of his friendship with Salinas, he became an essential conduit between the president and the old-guard. (Ruiz Massieu and Salinas attended the university together and Ruiz Massieu married, but later divorced, Salinas's sister.)

His position as governor, however, has also spurred other speculation regarding the assassination. Guerrero is a state known for the small ports and clandestine air strips that serve drug runners. As governor, Ruiz Massieu did not push a particularly tough stand against drug trafficking, observers of the state say, but neither was he linked with local drug lords.

Frederico Reyes Heroles, director of the respected Este Pais magazine, emphasizes that the killing took place ``as two of Mexico's major drug cartels are in confrontation.'' A reported battle between the so-called ``Gulf'' cartel and a rival Tijuana-Guadalajara group associated with Colombia's Medellin cartel is considered responsible for a rise in Mexico in drug-related violence.

Jeffrey Weldon, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico suggests that the killing may also be a message to Ruiz Massieu's brother, Mario, who is an assistant attorney general in charge of drug trafficking cases.

Restoring Mexico's image

In the coming weeks, the Ruiz Massieu murder is likely to increase pressure on the government to resolve the Colosio murder. Although a government commission concluded that the former PRI candidate was killed by a lone gunman, Mexicans largely scoff at that theory. The commission did not rule out, however, that broader interests ordered the killing, and speculation has been increasing hat drug traffickers were responsible for Colosio's death.

With just 60 days left in his term, Salinas is once again faced with the task of making over a national image increasingly shaped by political killings, the kidnapping of wealthy businessmen, and the Zapatista peasant rebels who remain armed in the southern State of Chiapas.

Mexicans had been buoyed by the calm in which the country voted in national elections Aug. 21. And the killing came just a day after Salinas had declared that the transition to a new presidency would take place in an orderly and stable manner. The murder was a reminder that instability has more typically marked the nation during 1994.

As one PRI senator said Wednesday night, Ruiz Massieu's death is another stab at Mexico's efforts to develop into a strong democracy. ``This puts Mexico on notice,'' Camp says. ``It reinforces an overall image, and it's not a positive one.''

The killing provoked a sharp drop in the Mexican peso relative to the US dollar before the Bank of Mexico intervened. The stock market also dropped more than three percent before an end-of-day rally limited the retreat to a little under 2 percent.

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