ALMOST unnoticed abroad, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo is playing a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Carlos Hank Gonzalez, the most formidable power broker in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Mr. Zedillo has pledged to end a long tradition of impunity for government officials and PRI stalwarts. Now, after the arrest of Mr. Hank's son for customs violations, Zedillo faces a critical test of his resolve to create "a nation of law," one he cannot afford to lose. No family more clearly epitomizes the problem of corruption and impunity in Mexico than the Hanks. The elder Hank, who once said "a poor politician is a poor politician," became a billionaire as a public servant, by steering government contracts to his companies. By 1982, when President Miguel de la Madrid launched his Moral Renovation campaign against corruption, Hank had become sufficiently notorious to be barred from further government service. It was former President Carlos Salinas who, belying promises of reform, rehabilitated Hank, first naming him secretary of tourism, then secretary of agriculture.
Hank's son Jorge has an even more sinister reputation. Among his extensive holdings is the Agua Caliente racetrack, said to be a money laundering center for the Tijuana Drug Cartel. In 1988, racetrack security guards, led by Jorge's personal bodyguard, murdered a newspaper editor who was probing their boss's business dealings. Two of the guards were jailed; the third was himself murdered.
So far, neither Hank has been charged with any criminal offense. Yet there is more to the arrest of Hank than the nominal charge of evading customs duties. Since it is customary for persons of Hank's stature to be escorted around customs, the decision to inspect his luggage was presumably made with presidential approval. The aim seems to be to strike a legally effective though indirect blow at the political connections of drug cartels. Eduardo Valle, the expatriate former head of a police task force assigned to investigate the Gulf Cartel, believes Carlos Hank is the "primary intermediary between the multinational drug trafficking enterprises and the Mexican political system." Mr. Valle, whose disclosures have proved uncannily accurate, says Jorge Hank's business holdings are intertwined with those of a key cartel lieutenant. Just last year, a Boeing 727 loaded with tons of Colombian cocaine landed at an airfield run by Taesa, an airline founded by the Hanks.
The significance of the Hank arrest is shown by the fact that it was Carlos Hank who consolidated PRI support for Zedillo's presidential candidacy last year. In brazen violation of a new electoral law, Hank sent faxes on official stationery to government officials, asking endorsement of Zedillo. Now, after severing ties with Salinas, who made him a presidential candidate, Zedillo appears to be breaking with Hank, the power broker.
It is a move fraught with risks, not the least of which may be further assassination attempts, this time directed at the president himself. Yet if Zedillo backs down, he will look weak, and the Hanks and other power brokers more invulnerable than ever. By using the arrest of Jorge Hank as an opportunity to pursue more serious allegations against the Hanks, Zedillo can lay the groundwork for a new kind of political stability, undergirded by the rule of law. Such a challenge to impunity would be revolutionary. It would place every cabinet minister, police commander, and army general on notice to respect the law. No law-breaker, however well connected, would feel secure. Greater accountability will help shield public funds from embezzlement, invigorate the free market by curtailing bribes and bid-rigging, and make it more difficult for drug traffickers to purchase protection. The more vigorously Zedillo cracks down, the more bullish Washington and Wall Street should be about Mexico's prospects, and the more ready to reward it with new aid and investment.