Puzzling Murders Stun Already-Weak Mexico

TWIN assassinations this week of a prominent jurist and a top prosecutor here have stirred fears that Mexico is slipping into a lawlessness equal to Colombia's worst excesses in recent years.

The killings are the latest in a spate of unsolved murders of public figures in the past two years, and are being met with public disbelief. Thousands took to the streets in protest Wednesday while newspapers published stark headlines. "What is happening?" asked one Mexico City daily.

Given the government's feckless law-enforcement performance over the past two years - and revelations of corruption and ties to drug traffickers among Mexico's police - many Mexicans doubt these murder cases will be solved quickly, if ever.

"I don't have the least bit of confidence that we're going to get to the bottom of this. I know this system," said Marco Rascon, a congressman from the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party. "The problem is that this type of violence does not stem from ordinary social disorder.... It is a political breakdown - a breakdown of the rule of law and of the practice of negotiation between groups in power."

The murders were yet another blow for President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon,who is struggling to overcome an economic crisis and regain foreign investors' confidence. The stock market and peso fell at the news.

When he came to office last December, Mr. Zedillo promised a redoubled crime-fighting effort. He set a precedent by appointing an opposition politician, Antonio Lozano Gracia of the National Action Party, as his attorney general. In more than six decades of continuous rule, Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had never before ceded control of the nation's law enforcement.

Oddly enough, the victims appeared to be on opposite sides of an issue that has inflamed the capital for months: The bankruptcy of a major public-bus system, known as Ruta 100, and corruption charges against the union that controlled it.

Government prosecutor Jesus Humberto Priego Chavez, gunned down outside his home Sunday night, was in charge of gathering evidence against 11 jailed union leaders. Former Mexico City high court judge Abraham Polo Uscanga, shot to death in an office late Monday, had quit the bench after voicing support for several of those same leaders.

Authorities announced no immediate suspects or arrests and gave no indication of possible motives.

Zedillo can boast of some past successes, notably the arrest of an older brother of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari in connection with the September 1994 killing of ruling-party leader Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

But failure to solve these and many other assassinations has eroded Zedillo's PRI. And the Mexican justice system has a history of unsolved, politically charged investigations: In 1993, a Roman Catholic cardinal was slain in the Guadalajara airport; in 1994, a presidential candidate was assassinated in Tijuana and a ruling-party leader in Mexico City; and this year, a former state attorney general was shot to death in Guadalajara.

Thousands attended Uscanga's funeral Wednesday, and as a hearse left the building, throngs chanted, "Justice! Justice!" and blocked traffic.

"Although Zedillo wants to do something, he can't," said one of the demonstrators, Roberto Gonzalez. "We are sick of all this. We say, enough!" Comparing Mexico to Colombia, he added, "The problems that we have in Mexico are already very strong, stronger than those in Colombia."

Editorials in Mexico's leading newspapers were just as pessimistic. The Mexico City daily Reforma wrote: "What we are witnessing is more than a union battle; rather, it is the scene of a profound process of political destabilization." Another daily, La Jornada, wrote that the cycle of unsolved crimes "has compromised the future of the republic."

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