Mexico's Salinas as Crime Fighter

MEXICO'S new government has stunned skeptics with a series of bold arrests in the five-year-old murder case of a muckraker named Manuel Buendia. A former federal security chief was fingered last month as the mastermind of the crime and captured in a dramatic Mexico City shoot-out; then police caught the alleged triggerman.

The arrests of Jos'e Antonio Zorrilla, Juan Rafael Moro Avila, and several suspected accomplices have given Mexicans hope that the country's new president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, might reverse the country's miserable record on solving press killings.

President Salinas had already started enforcing the law on other previously sacrosanct turf, like the oil workers union and the financial world.

But Salinas and his six-month-old government have a long way to go before journalists' suspicions will be allayed. Years of denouncing foul play in the Buendia case, as well as the murders of at least a dozen other journalists since ``Excelsior'' columnist Buendia, have tempered excitement over the arrests.

``It's a positive; it's a very important thing, but it's only the beginning,'' explained Union of Democratic Journalists (UPD) Secretary General Eduardo Valle in a recent interview with the Mexico Journal.

Journalists also want to see justice done in less politically prominent cases, such as the murder last year of Hector Felix Miranda, a satirical columnist at Tijuana's weekly ``Zeta.''

Mr. Miranda was known for his trenchant critiques of official wrongdoing. His colleagues at ``Zeta'' charge that important information has been ignored in the case.

They are convinced that Miranda's death was ordered by a powerful businessman whom police are unwilling to touch ``for political reasons.'' Instead, an accomplice is awaiting sentence in the case.

Prior to the recent arrests, the Buendia investigation was a farce. Key evidence had been misplaced or stolen; at one point investigators even lost track of a life-size dummy constructed in the killer's likeness.

Mr. Zorrilla, the man now being held as the ``intellectual author'' of Buendia's murder, was accused long ago of removing files from the journalist's office. As head of an FBI-type agency that was later closed down amid charges of corruption, he was the first ranking official to arrive at the scene of the 1984 crime and the man in charge of the investigation during its initial stage. Yet he was not officially named as a suspect until 1987.

The Salinas administration's action on the case after only months in power has led the UPD to wonder what former President Miguel de la Madrid's government was doing for four years with all the evidence that had been collected against Zorrilla. In fact, the 1,500-member group, which has closely followed the Buendia case, has filed a formal complaint about government's handling of the affair.

Opposition legislators' efforts to get to the bottom of the case have included demands for testimony from Miguel de la Madrid and current Interior Minister Fernando Gutierrez Barrios as to their ``possible knowledge'' about the case. Mr. Barrios was Zorrilla's boss at one time.

With or without further testimony in the Buendia case, though, Salinas has already done a lot for journalists in Mexico. Many of them are satisfied that he is at least acting in good faith.

The question now is whether he will be able to take on the rest of the country, where violent crimes have taken their heaviest toll on the press.

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