WHEN Mexican presidential candidate Donaldo Luis Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana last March, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari told a shaken nation that ``Mexicans have always rejected violence as the way to solve our problems.''
But in the wake of last week's killing here of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) second-in-command, some historians and political analysts are correcting Mr. Salinas.
They point out that Mexico actually has a heritage of settling political scores through violence - and they theorize that the profound economic and political reforms of the Salinas term have upset the country's long-entrenched power structures, thus pushing open the door to a new wave of vengeful bloodletting.
``Mexico is in the middle of a very significant transition, with important winners and losers,'' says political scientist Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra. ``Old powers are threatened but new ones are not yet always strong, and that has opened the way for this kind of violence to appear.''
Adding up 16 months of high-profile violence since the killing of a Roman Catholic cardinal by drug gangs in Guadalajara, Alfonso Zarate Flores, director of the Mexican Political Letter, says ``We are falling back into our past.''
That ``past,'' according to analysts, was in the years prior to the creation of the PRI in 1929, when violent struggles among the elite were commonplace. ``The PRI was actually created in response to the violence among revolutionary factions, as a means to solve power disputes in a civilized, political manner,'' Mr. Zarate says.
As an all-powerful party of the state, the PRI was able to control the distribution of power and the internal struggles for influence. As Mr. Elizondo notes, ``The power arrangement was not democratic, but it was peaceful.''
Now the shift from a state-directed economy to an open-market system, and from a monolithic state-party political structure to a more-pluralistic one, has shaken the foundations on which Mexican stability was based. That instability, in turn, has left Mexicans wondering if their future will resemble their past.
Those fears are fed by the political overtones of last week's killing. A PRI deputy, Manuel Munoz Rocha, is the presumed organizer of the Sept. 29 assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the PRI's secretary-general. But other high political leaders are thought to be involved in a plot rumored to have targeted other politicians. Ruiz Massieu was also a deputy-elect who had been assigned by president-elect Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon to carry out a program of stepped-up democratic reforms through the legislature.
The man who actually pulled the trigger on Ruiz Massieu was quickly apprehended. But with the list of people arrested in the case growing daily, officials say they are investigating both political motives and the possible involvement of drug cartels. Ruiz Massieu's brother, Mario, is an assistant attorney general responsible for the recently intensified war against drug trafficking and drug-money laundering.
Also implicated in the assassination is the former head of the country's powerful petroleum workers' union, who was imprisoned shortly after Salinas took office in 1988. This fits in with speculation that the Ruiz Massieu killing was at least in part a form of vengeance against Salinas - not just because Salinas made powerful enemies with the reforms he has pushed through, or because Ruiz Massieu was a childhood friend.
But some analysts also argue that by naming Mr. Zedillo, a like-minded free-market technocrat, to replace Mr. Colosio and thus become the next president, Salinas broke unwritten PRI rules against empire building. If the violence is occurring now, they add, it is both because the transition period is when the presidency is most vulnerable and because now is the time to send a message to Zedillo.
Distaste for Salinas in certain circles runs so strong, some observers find, that they believe another though perhaps secondary design of the Ruiz Massieu killing may have been to tarnish Mexico's international image and thwart the Mexican president's drive to be named head of the new World Trade Organization.
Although the mixing of politics and revenge would be nothing new, the involvement of drug interests at such a high level of Mexican political violence, if proved, would be. That specter caused such a preeminent Mexican writer as Carlos Fuentes to write in the Mexico City daily La Jornada this week that the two murders ``presage something the Colombians know all too well,'' and led one of this year's presidential candidates, Cecilia Soto, to denounce the ``Colombianization'' of Mexico.
In his article Mr. Fuentes asked the rather morbid question, ``Who is next?'' but what most Mexicans are wondering, rather, is what is next - a central question being whether Zedillo will face down powerful interests and pursue the country's political modernization.
And here, too, some observers are wondering if history will come to repeat itself. In 1931, president-elect Pascual Ortiz Rubio was targeted in an assassination attempt. He survived unscathed, but as Zarate notes, ``he came out of it paralyzed mentally, and his presidency was characterized by paralysis, fear, and inertia as well.''