Violence Seizes Attention In Mexico's Election Drive

Spate of killings and kidnappings takes focus off NAFTA, economy

MEXICO is reeling from one violent blow after another. And public security - or the lack of it - has become the issue in the lead up to the August elections.

In a year when the government ought to be enjoying the first fruits of the North American Free Trade Agreement or focusing on push-starting the sputtering economy, officials are dealing with a string of disturbing events.

Last Thursday, the police chief of Tijuana and his bodyguard were murdered by two carloads of gunmen. Seven suspects have been arrested. Investigators are trying to determine whether the killing was done by narcotraffickers or is connected to the police chief's investigation into the March 23 murder of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

On April 25, a prominent Mexico City businessman was kidnapped and is being held for a $50 million ransom. The kidnapping of Angel Losada Moreno, vice president of the national supermarket chain Gigante, comes just over a month after the kidnapping of Mexican billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu. Mr. Harp is being held for an estimated $90 million ransom.

These incidents, combined with the Chiapas uprising in January, and the murder of Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara by drug traffickers last year, have deeply shaken the Mexican business community.

Task for the candidates

``The principal problem is security,'' says IBM executive Luis Organes. ``If [ruling party presidential candidate] Zedillo solves this problem, he will contribute a great deal toward the development of the country.''

At a luncheon with Guadalajara businessmen last week, candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon agreed that ``the conditions of insecurity, violence, and aggression, of which all of us have been victims, can no longer be hidden.'' Mr. Zedillo got a standing ovation when he promised to make ``profound'' changes in the judicial system.

The government has already made some moves in trying to calm the mood of insecurity. On April 26, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari established the post of National Public Security Coordinator, a kind of anticrime czar. After 11 years as a tough, pro-business labor minister, Arsenio Farell Cubias is reportedly taking on the new job of coordinating Mexico's law enforcement agencies, including the armed forces.

Mr. Farell's appointment is ``an important message that the government is acting seriously to guarantee national security,'' a government official says. But the official warns against overreacting to recent events. ``People tend to perceive unrelated, isolated events as part of a pattern that isn't there,'' he says.

Law enforcement analysts have questioned Farell's appointment. ``It's a joke. What does he know about security?'' scoffed a former law enforcement official.

The high-profile crimes of recent months are indicative of serious organizational problems, according to the Foundation for the Promotion and Defense of Lawfulness here. The group of ex-legislators cites corruption, a lack of professionalism, and a deterioration in police standards as producing ``a climate of fear and lack of confidence among the population,'' according to the Foundation's report cited by the weekly news magazine Proceso.

The lack of trust is reflected in the requests by families of kidnapping victims that police not get involved. Last month, the Dallas Morning News reported that Mexican state and federal prosecutors quietly set up a national data bank of current and former police officers to identify cops involved in kidnapping rings.

Businesses can't wait

But Mexico City security expert, Morton Palmer of Palmer Associates, whose clients include multinational firms in Mexico, says neither Mexican nor foreign firms here can wait for the Mexican government to reform its law enforcement and judicial systems. ``The number of kidnapping cases and ransom amounts have grown dramatically in the last four years in Mexico,'' he says. ``It's a growing business and corporate chiefs need to be prudent.''

And it's a low-risk business. Mr. Palmer knows of no recent ransom case where a Mexican kidnapper has been caught. There have been at least 200 kidnappings here, including 21 with ransom payments of $1 million or more, according to a database compiled by Palmer over the last 16 months. So far, he says, only Mexican executives, not multinational company officials, have been kidnapped.

One piece of advice Palmer offers to executives is to get a chauffeur trained in how to avoid or escape from a kidnapping situation. In the two recent high-profile cases, Harp and Mr. Losada had each spent at least $100,000 to bullet- and bomb-proof their cars. But neither driver was trained in antikidnapping procedures. ``A trained driver could probably have escaped from the road blocks in each case,'' Palmer says.

The other suggestion Palmer offers: allow executives to use their armored cars every day of the week. Mexico City antipollution laws prohibit the use of cars (except delivery trucks) one day a week. Both Harp and Losada were kidnapped on the day their armored cars were not allowed to be used in the city.

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