Mexico's new president vows to push for change-but already he is embroiled in a political scandal

WARREN CARAGATA December 5 1994


Mexico's new president vows to push for change-but already he is embroiled in a political scandal

WARREN CARAGATA December 5 1994


Mexico's new president vows to push for change-but already he is embroiled in a political scandal


For Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, it was supposed to have been a week of triumphant events heralding his accession this week to the Mexican presidency—the poor boy from the border town of Mexicali made good. First, there was a private meeting in Ottawa with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and a dinner at 24 Sussex to prepare for the Dec. 9-11 summit of hemispheric leaders in Miami and the proposed inclusion of Chile in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Next, he flew to Washington for a similar get-acquainted session with President Bill Clinton. But even before the sash of office had been hung around the neck of the technocrat-turned-politician, Zedillo felt the sharp sting of political reality.

While the president-elect was practising diplomacy in the capitals of North America, Mexican attention was riveted on events at home. There, Deputy Attorney General Mario Ruiz Massieu caused shock waves with his announcement that he was resigning his post because of what he claimed had been high-level interference in his investiga-

tion of the September shooting death of his brother, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary general of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), under whose banner Zedillo won the Aug. 21 election. It is a scandal that has shaken Mexico’s political elite and provided renewed affirmation of the tremendous struggle within the party between conservatives and reformers. (Zedillo straddles both camps; he is an advocate of reform who won election with crucial and timely backing from the conservatives and their chief political architect, Carlos Hank González.) It is also a controversy that has threatened Zedillo’s prestige even before he moves into the presidential compound in Mexico City. “This makes the transition of power extremely, extremely difficult,” said Sergio Sarmiento, an independent Mexican political commentator.

At a news conference in the capital, Ruiz told supporters and journalists that he was resigning “as an act of dignity.” He then accused three key figures in the PRI, which has governed Mexico without interruption since it was founded in 1929, of complicity in a

coverup. “The investigation was being blocked and I could not be a part of that,” he said. Ruiz added he had evidence that would be sufficient to lay charges of “various crimes” against PRI president Ignacio Pichardo Pagaza, the party’s new secretary general, María de los Angeles Moreno, and Attorney General Humberto Benitez Treviño. All three later denied the allegations.

In Ottawa, speaking to Maclean’s on the eve of Ruiz’s announcement, Zedillo promised to make sure that both that investigation and another inquiry into the March 23 assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, the PRI’s original candidate for president, go ahead unimpeded (page 28). In fact, one of his first responsibilities in office will be to decide whether to retain Benitez as attorney general or to replace him with a reformer. “Zedillo has to name a credible attorney general,” said Federico Estévez, a political scientist at the Technological InstiTUTE of Mexico. “He is forced into it by the cir-

cumstances.” Zedillo’s task will not be easy, though, because the

system itself has been tarnished and the credibility of the ruling party seriously damaged. For Mexico,

and for outgoing president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, it has been a horrible year. It started with the rebellion by a peasant group calling itself the Zapatistas last January in the poor southern state of Chiapas, where an uneasy truce now prevails. TJien came Colosio’s shooting death during a campaign appearance in Tijuana and the subsequent shooting in downtown Mexico City of Ruiz, who had joined the ranks of those pushing the PRI to accept political reforms that could end its monopoly on power. The deputy attorney general’s allegations of interference in the Ruiz case have also fed public disbelief in the official verdict that Colosio, an enthusiastic promoter of political and social change, was killed by

a crazed gunman acting on his own. “The public sees the PRI as a group of bandits and murderers,” said Arturo Sánchez, a political analyst with the Institute of Political Studies, a Mexico City think-tank.

Zedillo’s immediate challenge will be to convince Mexicans that he really does want to find the people responsible for the deaths of Ruiz and Colosio, who was one of his closest friends. But beyond that, he faces a raft of other political and economic challenges:

• Reaching a permanent settlement in

Chiapas and dealing with

the problems of indigenous people pushed into the highlands by powerful ranchers and plantation


• Fulfilling his campaign commitment to create one million jobs a year in a country where 45 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

• Eliminating official corruption and reforming the justice system.

• Accelerating the pace of political reforms begun by Salinas, and forcing the party itself to abandon the practice of having the president and his power brokers choose the party’s candidates.

In all those areas, Zedil-

lo has promised action— and reforms to the justice and political systems were a key part of his election platform. As he takes power, there will be intense interest in whether he intends to keep those promises—whether, in other words, he will side with the reformers intent

on making Mexico a modern democracy or pay his debts to the old guard of so-called party dinosaurs who helped him get elected. That old guard includes Pichardo and Benitez, each of whom is a protégé of Carlos Hank González, one of the most powerful figures in Mexican politics. As the head of a business empire that includes transportation interests, telecommunications and racetracks, Hank is a living reminder that for 65 years the PRI has stood for one thing above all: power. Although Hank plans to retire this week, critics of the regime note that his allies occupy important positions in Zedillo’s retinue.

Despite such political alliances, Zedillo’s instincts as a progressive seem clear. In last week’s interview, the 42-year-old former civil servant noted that real change can only come to Chiapas by breaking “the traditional economic and political structures.” And while Zedillo rejected suggestions that the

‘The investigation was being blocked and I could not be a part ofthat’

Ruiz assassination was a warning to him to slow the pace of change, he also vowed that he would not be intimidated from pursuing his promised course.

Indeed, according to Sarmiento, there is no doubt where Zedillo’s heart is: “Personally, he’s totally committed to reform.” But Zedillo did not ascend to the presidency from a working-class neighborhood in Mexicali, where he sold newspapers on the street, by intelligence and idealism alone. “He is also a realist and he knows he can’t tear the fabric of the country,” says

Sarmiento. “Wanting reform is not the same as getting reform.” As Zedillo himself acknowledged last week, fundamental change requires the support of a broad coalition, and he knows he cannot afford to go as quickly as some would like.

The PRI is far more than just a political party. It is a network of people that allows the president to take action. “If the party disappears as a network, then it’s going to be more difficult for him to rule,” says Sarmiento. And the danger for Zedillo is that the reformers in

the party may follow Mario Ruiz Massieu out the door, leaving him with a party dominated by Hank’s conservatives. Intriguingly, one of Ruiz’s supporters is Manuel Camacho Solis, a former Mexico City mayor who barely concealed his disappointment when Salinas passed him over and selected Colosio as the party’s presidential candi-

date. While hated by the power brokers for his perceived disloyalty to the gentlemen’s club that has traditionally overseen the PRI, Camacho remains a popular—and potentially powerful—figure among Mexican voters.

The PRI has not survived as long as it has, nor held power as long as it has, by folding under pressure. But there can be no disputing the political force of last week’s events following on the accumulated blows of the past year. It will be impossible for Zedillo to finesse the scandal, argues Sergio Aguayo, a leader of the human rights coalition Alianza Cívica. After all, he says, “In Mexico, the government and the party are one and the same.” As Zedillo this week dons his ceremonial sash of office, that is precisely his problem.