Mexican Scandal: Big Bonuses for Mysterious Deeds

THIS past Christmas season Mexicans were shocked to learn, for the first time in history, some actual figures about bonuses given public figures.

In the middle of the worst economic depression in the country's recent history, reliable newspapers say government officials have received year-end bonuses that most of the population perceive as obscene. In rough current dollar terms, here are the amounts of some of them: the mayor of Mexico City, $93,000; cabinet members, $53,000; an assistant director of one of Mexico City's 16 boroughs, $15,000; members of Congress, $9,300 (there are about 500 of them - and that doesn't count senators).

This, when about 2 million Mexican workers have lost their jobs this past year, another million youths are entering the job market with few prospects, the minimum wage is still below $3 a day, the final inflation figure will be around 52 percent, the peso is worth less than half of its December 1994 value, and emigration to the United States rose by more than 25 percent during 1995.

Then came what should be the bombshell to cause, finally, the reform of the system six decades in power. A recent trial concluded in Newark, N.J., has shown that the December 1995 bonuses are probably spartan. These pittances are evidence of an austerity program when compared with the bonuses secretly lavished by former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

We now know this because of evidence that the Mexican government tried to hide during the extradition trial of Mario Ruiz Massieu, the former Mexican Assistant Attorney General who fled to the United States. The prolonged case was dismissed three times before the Mexican government tried its last charge, the accusation of embezzling $750,000 from the Mexican government. The defense was able to show, however, that this money was a bonus personally given to Mr. Ruiz Massieu by Mr. Salinas for ''undercover investigations,'' and known to the Mexican attorney general. The government finally gave up and Ruiz Massieu, while still facing a deportation hearing, has applied for political asylum.

While he was in office, Ruiz Massieu did little to solve the one big case he was assigned (the assassination of his brother, Francisco, a ruling party [PRI] leader). Possible explanations for the size of the bonus: It was just a normal handout for trying to do a very difficult job and coming up with incomplete answers; or it was a large payment for doing something extraordinary. If the second, what could have prompted such generosity? Only a single action - or, more correctly, inaction - comes to mind. When Mario was in charge of Francisco's case, the name of the president's brother, Raul, never surfaced. Only after he fled Mexico was it disclosed that ''orders had been given'' to delete Raul's name from investigative reports. Subsequently Raul has been formally indicted, charged with masterminding the murder.

If the $750,000 was a payoff for not involving Raul, then brother Carlos would be implicated in at least obstruction of justice. The only other option is to view the $750,000 as just another bonus - and that would be evidence of rampant ''inexplicable enrichment,'' a crime in Mexico.

A few months ago, a former PRI leader spelled out in general terms how the bonus system works: Mexican presidents have discretionary control, without accountability, of about one-third of all funds the government collects. Until now, however, the sizes of individual bonuses have been a closely guarded mystery.

The public should be given more than just clues from a New Jersey court. Former President Salinas should disclose the facts. The Mexican press should insist on full disclosure, especially from the newly appointed government controller, Arsenio Farell, a friend of Salinas. If President Ernesto Zedillo means what he says about carrying out the assassination investigations ''to their ultimate consequences,'' that must imply looking into the former president's actions. An easy way for Salinas to help clear his own name would be to show that the bonus given Mario Ruiz Massieu was commensurate with what others at his level of government received for equal service, and less than was given to those above him.

Would such evidence be damning from the standpoint of judging the PRI's governing methods? Yes, and it would also show that some of the money US taxpayers have poured into Mexico has, in many cases, gone into the wrong pockets.

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