Colosio: Victim of Mexico's Lawless Politics

Salinas can check collusion in political system by allowing investigation of powerful officials

THE disclosure that the Mexican government entrusted the security of assassinated presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio to former policemen who had been cited for torture and corruption points to a serious shortcoming in the reforms initiated by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

While vigorously restructuring the economy, President Salinas has failed to carry out a comparable cleansing of Mexico's political system. Impunity continues to be the norm among officials of the ruling party, the police, and well-connected businessmen and drug traffickers, encouraging them to defend jeopardized financial and political interests through death threats and assassination.

Nowhere are the dimensions of the problem more obvious than in Tijuana, the dusty, burgeoning metropolis that has become a symbol of Mexico's uneven efforts at modernization. While the city has boomed with new industries, it has also supplied the gunmen for the two major assassinations that have convulsed Mexican society over the past year, striking the pinnacles of church and state.

Last May, hit men ostensibly hired by the Tijuana drug cartel gunned down Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at the international airport in Guadalajara. From the beginning, there were signs of official complicity. Witnesses said federal police helped the gunmen flee into the terminal, where they boarded an Aerovias de Mexico flight to Tijuana. Hours later, the assassins deplaned in Baja California without any attempt at an arrest.

Eleven months later, the government still has not seized the alleged masterminds, though they have been seen frequently in public. The only half-serious attempt at an arrest quickly degenerated into a macabre parody of the Keystone Cops. When federal police tried to nab cartel lieutenant Ismael Higuera in early March, officers were ambushed by state judicial police who were guarding Mr. Higuera. In the ensuing shootout, four persons, including the federal commander, were killed. The mobster escaped. Later, the deputy attorney general of Baja California intervened to release a Higuera sidekick detained at the scene.

With so much evidence of collusion by federal and state authorities, the tepid pursuit of the cardinal's assassins is widely interpreted in Mexico to mean that the Tijuana cartel has powerful connections in Mexico City and in Mexicali, the capital of Baja California. And though it may be tempting to attribute these connections to internal adversaries of Salinas's reforms, such an interpretation is belied by the president's own clearly defined policy of impunity for violent but well-connected transgressors of the law.

That policy was established early in the administration in a case involving the assassination of a Tijuana newspaper editor. Shortly after writing columns critical of Jorge Hank, one of Mexico's most prominent businessmen, Felix Miranda was gunned down in his car. The assassins later were identified as security guards for a racetrack owned by Hank; and the chief guard - a former federal agent - was seen cashing a $10,000 voucher on the day of the murder. In any country subject to the rule of law, Hank would have been an obvious suspect. Yet this was Mexico, where Hank's father, Carlos Hank Gonzalez, was a close associate of incoming Salinas, leaving the son untouchable; case closed.

But in 1990, following a public outcry over the assassination of a human rights leader by federal police in the state of Sinaloa, Salinas formed a government human rights commission. Responding to persistent appeals from Mexican journalists, the commission reopened the Miranda file. Yet the case again was dropped following reports that Carlos Hank, now minister of agriculture, had advised the commission president to stay clear of his son. This could not have happened without the approval of the president; a clear message was sent that despite its rhetoric of reform, the Salinas administration would continue to play the political game by the old rules.

Ironically, the government appears to have become the latest victim of its own policy. As in other recent assassinations, most of the suspects in the Colosio slaying belong to the same sinister, semicovert police and intelligence networks that are routinely allowed to get away with murders committed on behalf of powerful patrons.

Adding to the irony is the fate of a report on the state judicial police that was published last year by the Binational Human Rights Commission, based in Tijuana. The report documented shocking abuses, including the sale of police credentials to drug traffickers and other delinquents at $10,000 apiece. Rather than crack down on such practices, state government officials charged commission president Victor Clark with libel, even as he was being subjected to death threats.

The essential problem is that Mexico's leaders are unaccustomed to the idea that they could themselves become the target of abuses they otherwise tolerate against individuals, like Miranda and Clark, who challenge the status quo. Until now, the victims of hundreds of political assassinations have been investigative journalists, human rights activists, labor organizers, peasant and Indian leaders, and members of opposition parties. Now that the lawlessness is striking members of the political and ecclesiastical establishments, it is hoped that Salinas will at last take decisive action against impunity.

He can begin by pursuing the trail of this latest conspiracy wherever it leads, as well as by forming a special commission of prominent citizens to investigate Mexico's many other unresolved assassinations. With members chosen by consensus among the three major parties, such a commission would have the independence to identify those responsible for murder, be they state or federal police, ranchers, prominent businessmen, or even high party officials and members of the cabinet. The higher such investigations reach, the more powerful their demonstration effects. Ultimately, the way to forestall growing lawlessness is finally to apply the rule of law, starting form the top. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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