Raconteurs in Mexico enthrall visitors with yarns about the missing appendages of Mexican notables. Some insist that 19th-century strongman Antonio Lpez de Santa Anna entombed a lost leg amid pomp and circumstance. They also recall the amputated arm of revolutionary hero Gen. Alvaro Obregn, who wore his empty sleeve as an emblem of patriotic valor in successful campaigns for the presidency in the 1920s.
Since the July 6 rout of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in key midterm elections, local storytellers have heaped praise on this nation's so-called "nine-fingered president." Ernesto Zedillo, figuratively speaking, has given up his index finger, at least for purposes of naming Mexico City's mayor - in a hoary procedure known as dedazo, after the Spanish word for finger, dedo.
In this act of political self-sacrifice, the chief executive permitted the citizenry - rather than himself - to fill city hall. Much to the PRI's chagrin, voters opted for opposition candidate Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, who skewered the Revolutionary Party's standard-bearer by a 2-to-1 margin. While a victory for pluralism, this outcome could inadvertently benefit the nation's narco-criminals by further weakening the office of president, already in decline.
Zedillo's power sacrifice
As he prepares to present his annual State of the Nation address on Monday, Sept. 1, President Zedillo has diminished executive clout by (1) spurning the dedazo to choose his own successor three years hence, (2) handing over to Mr. Crdenas the selection of the capital's attorney-general and police chief, (3) delegating greater decisionmaking to the judicial and legislative branches, traditional presidential lap dogs, and (4) lavishing more pesos and power on states and localities.
He apparently believes that "once the weight of the presidency is reduced, Mexican society will adjust automatically in a democratic way," says John J. Bailey of Georgetown University.
Although laudable in theory, the gratuitous transfer of authority unwittingly plays into the hands of local political bosses known as "dinosaurs" and their unsavory allies in the violent, Croesus-rich drug cartels that have spread like an ink stain through this country's social fabric.
A former attorney-general has excoriated the Federal Judicial Police (PJF) - the local version of the FBI - as a "cesspool of corruption," while fresh revelations of narco-crime within the military appear weekly in the press.
The military and drugs
An investigative report in Proceso magazine prompted the Mexican Defense Ministry to admit that, since January, it had provided to judicial authorities the names of 34 ex-military officers suspected of conniving with drug bandits. The day following the publication of the article two men on a motorcycle gunned down a former "Seorita Guadalajara" mentioned in the magazine as a liaison between drug barons and the military brass.
This flood of narco-related crime will surge into a tsunami unless Zedillo makes combating the drug mafiosi his No. 1 priority. Whether he likes it nor not, the long legacy of Ibero-Latin American tradition buttresses the legitimacy of strong executives in the region.
No one wants Zedillo to morph into a mercurial, authoritarian demagogue like Peru's president, Alberto Fujimori. However, the people do look to him as the jefe mximo to prevent their country's "Colombianization" - a prospect heightened as Mexican syndicates move beyond merely smuggling cocaine across the Rio Grande to transporting and wholesaling drugs in New York and other states.
Now that he has established his democratic bona fides in the midsummer election, Zedillo should marshal his still-considerable powers, crack down on drug barons, and - dedazo or not - make clear to ambitious politicians that hand-in-bloody-glove collaboration with the cocaine capos will spike their careers.
Seeking outside help
Nationalistic sensibilities notwithstanding, he should even consider seeking antinarcotics specialists from Canada, Great Britain, and Spain to replace the Army officers now supervising the police in Mexico City, where they are vulnerable to the same corruption rampant in the PJF.
Failure to act will find the president and other civilian leaders politically undermined by predatory drug lords, who can only benefit from Zedillo's sloughing off of his office's customary constitutional authority amid a challenge far more dangerous than any financial crisis.
* George W. Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is author most recently of "Mexico: Corporatism to Pluralism?," to be published by Harcourt-Brace in September.