WORLD

GUNNED DOWN

An assassin kills Mexico’s heir apparent

MARCI McDONALD April 4 1994
WORLD

GUNNED DOWN

An assassin kills Mexico’s heir apparent

MARCI McDONALD April 4 1994

GUNNED DOWN

WORLD

An assassin kills Mexico’s heir apparent

MARCI McDONALD

He had just wound up a campaign rally in one of Tijuana’s poorest barrios with his usual chant—“Viva México!”— when the shots rang out. As two bullets from a .38-calibre Brazilian Taurus handgun ripped through his stomach and brain, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, the handsome 44-year-old heir apparent to the Mexican presidency, slumped to the dirt road in a pool of blood, mortally wounded. With his death three hours later, those twin shots plunged Mexico into a state of dazed shock—and its pivotal August presidential elections into uncertainty. They also shattered the facade of stability that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had constructed after another fusillade from a peasant rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas on New Year’s Day exploded the expensively cultivated myth of Mexico’s economic miracle.

As word of Colosio’s death spread, Salinas took to the microphones at the presidential palace, Los Pinos, urging his citizenry to “maintain our unity.” But he appeared visibly shaken by the assassination of the man he had handpicked as his protégé more than a decade ago, then anointed as his political successor late last year. “We will keep in place

our regime of liberty and of constitutional order,” Salinas declared. Even as he spoke, analysts both inside and outside Mexico were questioning, often in apocalyptic terms, the future of his economic and democratic reforms. Most agreed the country would never be the same. “Mexicans are re-examining their whole society, where they’re going politically and the choices they’ve made,” said Roderic Camp, a Mexican expert at Tulane University in New Orleans. Added Carlos Heredia, a Washington-based economist and formerly a senior official in the Mexican finance ministry: “It is the beginning of the end of Mexican politics as we know it.”

For Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the 450 Canadian businessmen he had led to a trade show in the capital early last week, Colosio’s murder threw doubt on the two countries’ still-tentative economic ties. Fresh from unveiling a new foreign policy that called for a stronger tilt towards Latin America—and away from Washington— Chrétien landed in Mexico City only hours before the assassination. In quick succession, he found his state dinner with Salinas cancelled and his attempt to pay respects

to Colosio’s grieving third wife turned into a public relations disaster (page 26).

Like U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose administration announced an $8-billion line of credit for Mexico to prop up the peso, the Prime Minister answered his host’s request for help in international damage control. Touring the Canadian trade fair a day after the killing, Chrétien said it was no time for investors to flee Mexico. “In a political situation like that, people get nervous,” he said. “If we believe in democracy and stability, you stick around, you don’t run away.”

Not all investors were reassured. Gordon Hainstock, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s man in Mexico, predicted that many companies would delay pumping money into the country until its course becomes clear. ‘You would want to be very, very cautious,” he said. “It will slow things down.”

Any such reduction in foreign investment could prove disastrous—and risk provoking further unrest—at a time when Mexico’s battered economy has slipped into recession. To service the country’s massive external debt and maintain the vast infrastructure program that Salinas has promised to ease the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he needs a reliable source of for-

eign currency. Said Larry Bims, director of Washington’s Council on Hemispheric Affairs: “Any interruption of these loans would be mortal.”

Still, the greatest threat is to Mexico’s fragile political fabric. Seconds after Colosio’s point-blank shooting, the crowd at the Tijuana rally attacked Mario Aburto Martínez, a 23year-old mechanic at a maquiladora plastics plant on the San Diego border. Police later said he confessed to the murder. Mexico’s state-dominated media promptly began promoting what Mexican analysts termed “the lone crazed gunman theory.” But as authorities dismissed any possibility of a political motive for his actions, they only succeeded in raising questions about Aburto’s curious claim to be a pacifist and his reported declaration after the killing—“I have saved Mexico.”

Those questions provided further grist for the capital’s churning mill of conspiracy theories. Many armchair analysts blamed the assassination on the right wing of Salinas’s own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled the country for the past 65 years. Those who subscribe to that theory note that PRI hardliners oppose the government’s attempts to mollify the Chiapas rebels, in particular by giving in to their demand for clean presidential elections this summer. Their opposition increased when it became clear the party could lose its monopoly on power under Salinas’s newly instituted slate of electoral reforms.

“I don’t buy the notion that this is a crazed lone gunman,” said Heredia. “Who is bound to benefit from this? It appears the faction advocating an end to the dialogue with the Zapatistas, because they can make the case that it’s time to consolidate political control.” At week’s end, the Zapatista National Liberation Army issued a communiqué from its jungle stronghold in Chiapas endorsing that view and blaming Colosio’s death on “the hardliners and the military option inside the government” who want to “end all the peace-

ful intent of democratization of the country.” Already, the assassination has had the reverse effect of the January uprising, when a majority of Mexicans sympathized with the demands of the masked insurgents for clean elections and justice for the benighted Mayan population. Now, the government—and the ruling party—seem set to benefit from a sympathy backlash and the public’s fear of political risk. “In the face of such a crisis, you run for order,” says Lorenzo Meyer, a history professor at the capital’s Colegio de México. “You run for security.”

Others predict that the country’s longneglected military establishment is likely to

emerge as an influential player on the Mexican political stage. “Chiapas has let the military genie out of the bottle,” says Bims. “The military is going to become an increasingly clamorous claimant on the political system.” Certainly, Colosio’s slaying shines another unwelcome spotlight on a country whose political history has been bloodier than Salinas’s sophisticated public relations machine would have the world believe. Last month’s kidnapping of billionaire Alfredo Harp Held, president of the mammoth Grupo Financiero Banamex-Accival SA and a close associate of Salinas, drew attention to the fact that executive abductions have become one of Mexico’s growth industries. Since 1990, hundreds of the country’s top business executives have been held for ransom by professional extortionists, who can count on their families’ wish to hush up the blackmail.

Although no leading Mexican politician has been assassinated since president-elect Alvaro Obregón in 1928, the leftist opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) claims that more than 200 of its - members have been victims of political killings since the controversial 1988 presidential elections—which most Mexicans believe would have been won by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, now the PRD’s leader, were it not for government-sanctioned fraud. In fact, only hours after Colosio’s death, an anonymous caller phoned in a bomb threat to PRD headquarters in Mexico City.

Last week, Cárdenas and rival opposition leader Diego Fernández de Cevallos of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) temporarily suspended their campaigning to pay their respects at Colosio’s flower-laden silver casket, which lay in state for a day at PRI headquarters. And like the rest of the nation, they

awaited the announcement of Colosio’s replacement as the ruling party’s standardbearer. But that choice poses a thorny problem for Salinas. On the one hand, the president is under intense international pressure to break with the tradition by which he handpicked Colosio as his successor. But if he throws the selection process open to a more democratic process, he risks splitting the party and plunging the nation into further chaos. Said Camp: “The president is in a jam.” Already the most logical PRI candidate has removed himself from the race—not once but twice. A day before Colosio’s death, his chief party rival, former Mexico City mayor Manuel Comacho Solis—a boyhood friend of Salinas whom the president had put in charge of negotiations with the Zapatista rebels—had ended months of speculation that he was planning an independent bid for the presidency. After the assassination, conventional wisdom in the capital dismissed any possibility of him reconsidering. When Camacho turned up to view Colosio’s body, he was booed by the crowd.

And one woman shrieked that he was behind the murder. That same day, Camacho reiterated that he would not run. Said Meyer: “You do not want to win over the dead body of somebody who was seen as your political opponent.”

Among the other leading contenders is former education minister Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, a Yale-educated economist who was Colosio’s campaign manager. Thanks to that job, Zedillo is one of the few from Salinas’s inner circle—another is party chief Fernando Ortiz Arana—to meet the constitutional requirement that a presidential candidate must have been off the federal payroll for six months before the election. But he lacks both the stature and the stardom of his former boss. And in recent months, Mexico’s influential daily El Financiero has published investigations of his family’s government construction contracts in impoverished Chiapas. Because of the constitutional hitch, many analysts predict that Salinas will announce a six-week delay in the Aug. 21 election—allowing other cabinet cronies time to become eligible. Among them: Treasury Secretary Pedro Aspe Armella.

But whoever finally takes up Salinas’s torch will not have an enviable task. Already bloodied by revolt and a regicide of sorts, Mexico stands at an uneasy crossroads, struggling to come to grips with its worst political crisis in recent history and facing an increasingly uncertain future. Says Bims: “By killing what was to be the next president, you’ve also wounded the Mexican presidency as we’ve known it.”

MARCI MCDONALD with WARREN CARAGATA and SCOTT MORRISON in Mexico City