An embarrassing and debilitating lack of results in Mexico's administration of justice led President Ernesto Zedillo to fire the country's first attorney general from an opposition party.
The question now is whether the new attorney general - a political independent who was president of the National Human Rights Commission - will be any more successful at bringing real change to Mexico's inefficient and widely corrupt justice system.
When Mr. Zedillo took office in 1994, he cited reforming the country's justice system as his top priority. And to show he meant business, Zedillo took the bold step of naming as attorney general Antonio Lozano Gracia, a leader in the national Congress of the opposition National Action Party (PAN). Not only was Mr. Lozano Gracia the first opposition party member to join a presidential cabinet, but he took the helm of justice just as a series of high-profile assassinations reduced even further the Mexican public's and international confidence in Mexico's rule of law.
But Zedillo's sudden dismissal Monday of Lozano Gracia indicates how far the attorney general's star had fallen. Opposition leaders raised questions about the manner in which the attorney general was dismissed, but the moderation in their questioning indicates that even they knew his time was up.
"If Zedillo were from the PAN, Lozano Gracia wouldn't have lasted this long," says Roderic Ai Camp, a Mexican government specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Hopes are again high among political observers here that the new "top cop" - Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, a respected lawyer who takes with him to Justice a well-viewed team from the Human Rights Commission - will be able to make progress where Lozano Gracia couldn't.
Others caution against expecting too much from one person in an entrenched bureaucracy. "I'm not convinced that replacing [Lozano Gracia] will do much to solve the [Justice] agency's problems; it's been the same problems for so many years," says Mr. Camp. "It continues to be overwhelmingly inefficient, riddled with corruption, and lacking in professionalism."
The assassinations of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) 1994 presidential candidate; the PRI's second-in-command, Jose Francisco Ruiz Mas-sieu; and Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, remain unsolved, the cases often having got lost down false paths.
"After two years there was no optimism that one of these assassinations was any closer to being solved, there were too many sensational claims that never panned out, and too much playing out of all this in the press," says Alberto Arnaut, a political scientist at Colegio de Mexico here. "All the open ends were affecting the general ability to govern."
Lozano Gracia has claimed considerable progress in Mexico's war against impunity with the arrest of Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, on charges of illegal enrichment and suspected involvement in the Ruiz Massieu killing. Although Raul Salinas remains in prison, the case against him has been weakened by leaks to the press, poor and perhaps illegal handling of evidence and information provided by US and Swiss officials, and even the reported use of psychics and suspects' former lovers to garner information.
Mexico last week took another step toward ending the tradition of untouchable former presidents when Carlos Salinas was summoned to the Mexican embassy in Dublin, where he is living in exile, to give testimony on the assassinations. Never before had a former president been called to testify on crimes that occurred during his rule. But observers point out that even though his testimony began under Lozano Gracia, the questioning was directed by a chief investigator from Mr. Madrazo's team who had recently been named by Zedillo to head the Colosio investigation.
Until recently, Zedillo professed complete confidence in his point man on justice, but insiders say more than anything else, the sensational case of a body dug up Oct. 6 on one of Raul Salinas's properties near Mexico City turned the president against Lozano Gracia. With great fanfare, the attorney general and one of his chief investigators declared that the body almost certainly was that of Manuel Munoz Rocha, a politician suspected of aiding Raul Salinas in the Ruiz Massieu killing who disappeared shortly after the 1994 assassination. But doubts about the body's identity only deepened as time passed - it has still not been ascertained - and a circus atmosphere reigned with revelations of how the exhumation had been prompted by testimony from psychics and politicians' old lovers.
On a secondary level are the political repercussions Lozano Gracia's dismissal may have, with important congressional elections coming up next year. Some observers believe the dismissal, following other recent partisan events, indicates an end to Zedillo's efforts to work with the opposition - at least until after the elections.
Looking ahead, although the fact that Madrazo was appointed to the human rights post by Carlos Salinas has raised some eyebrows, his distance from Mexico's political parties and his experience with human rights work will help him going in, some observers say. "The least we can expect," adds Mr. Arnaut, "is that party politics will this time really be taken out of the administration of justice."