Why Does Zedillo Ignore A Despot in His Midst?

Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo just returned from a personal visit to guerrilla-ridden Chiapas where he emphasized his devotion to the rule of law. Meanwhile, he continues to sit on his hands while Gov. Jorge Carrillo Olea - an ex-general from the "dinosaur" wing of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - thumbs his nose at justice and human rights in Morelos state, just south of the capital.

Failure to move against the governor will further darken Mexico's international image, endanger the performance of PRI candidates in the 14 states holding gubernatorial and municipal elections this year, and impede Mr. Zedillo's gambit to coax the Zapatista rebels back to the bargaining table.

PRI national leaders simply shake their heads incredulously over presidential inertia. In quietly grumbling about the 60-year-old state executive, they recognize that he hangs as a millstone around the neck of a party trying to rebound from losing control of Congress and the Mexico City mayorship last July.

Since Mr. Carrillo took office in 1994, Morelos - a picturesque tourist mecca and retirement venue for many Americans - has gained worldwide notoriety for police torture, kidnappings by law-enforcement agents, official corruption, and the coddling of narco-traffickers.

For instance, before dying under a plastic surgeon's scalpel last year, Juarez Cartel kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes owned a mansion two blocks from the palatial Cuernavaca home of the governor, his alleged buddy.

Gov. Carrillo's claims of innocence and ignorance aside, human rights activists, business moguls, the Roman Catholic Church, opposition parties, and 94 percent of voters in an informal March plebiscite have demanded his resignation.

Still, Zedillo limits himself to occasional harrumphing. Some say he's preoccupied with Chiapas and plunging oil prices; others argue he doesn't want to rankle the "governors' cartel"- composed of his party hardliners - with whom the Morelos state executive makes common cause. A few believe that Carrillo - who once headed the local version of the CIA - boasts an archive bulging with the names of corrupt PRI bigshots. But Zedillo, who's clean as a hound's tooth, has nothing to fear from a deposed, angry Carrillo.

However, the brainy economist-turned-politician hates to muscle elected hacks, regardless of their sins. A dyed-in-the-wool democrat and champion of federalism, he hates to appear autocratic.

In fact, the 40-member Morelos state legislature would unseat the crude, venal governor if Zedillo flashed a green light. For instance, he could simply urge the 17 PRI state deputies to "vote their consciences" - and they would grasp his intent. The president would have to lower the boom only in the unlikely event that Carrillo defied impeachment.

Nonetheless, timorous lawmakers will not proceed without a clear signal from Los Pios, the presidential palace.

Of course, jettisoning Carrillo would be a godsend to Morelos, to PRI gubernatorial aspirants who are seeking their party's nomination in open primaries for the first time, and to Zedillo's already sturdy public-approval ratings.

While his countrymen appreciate their chief executive's eagerness to craft new rules for Mexico's once hugely-authoritarian political game, they also expect him to act boldly when the chips are down.

By no means a walk in the park, removing Carrillo presents a relatively simple challenge compared to resolving the Zapatista conundrum.

And divesting Morelos of its ruthless despot would impress the regime's foes and enhance the president's ability to advance the peace process in Chiapas.

* George W. Grayson teaches government at The College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va. He wrote 'Mexico: From Corporatism to Pluralism?' (Harcourt-Brace, 1998).

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