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Mexican Assassination Arrest Reveals Ruling Party to Be a House Divided


THE Mexico City daily El Financiero ran a single headline yesterday: ``Rupture in the System.''

After living through three shocking assassinations in less than two years that hinted at high-level authors but were never solved, many Mexicans concluded darkly that impunity and corruption would always be more the rule in their country than an equal application of justice.

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With the arrest Tuesday of the brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari for allegedly masterminding one of the killings, a measure of hope rippled through the country that perhaps, under its surface of economic and social turmoil, Mexico is progressing toward democratic change and the rule of law.

``What stands out about this event is an application of the law independent of the level or name of the person involved,'' said Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, secretary general of the National Action Party (PAN), the leading opposition party, after the arrest. ``That is a very good sign.''

The arrest is unprecedented because it violates an unwritten rule of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI): that a president doesn't call into question the actions of an earlier administration. The move further deepens a rift in the ruling PRI between old-liners and party members seeking democratic reforms that would open up the system.

Evidence seen as weak

Raul Salinas de Gortari, older brother of the former president, was arrested Tuesday in connection with the murder in September of No. 2 PRI leader Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

To many observers, the evidence seemed weak. Pablo Chapa Bezanilla, the assistant attorney general in charge of investigating the murder, outlined evidence that relied heavily on Raul Salinas's association with Manuel Munoz Rocha, the assumed brains behind the crime. The statement also gave no possible motive.

The seemingly weak evidence was at least initially overlooked in favor of the fact that someone so close to a former president was arrested and would be required to face the justice system. ``The myth of the untouchable presidential family and entourage is falling,'' said one senator.

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Mr. Chapa is also in charge of investigating the March 1994 assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, as well as the 1993 killing of Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.

Following by only a few days the dramatic development in the Colosio investigation - that special investigator's conclusion that two gunmen hit the presidential candidate during a crowded Tijuana campaign stop and that therefore the case involved a conspiracy - the Salinas arrest gives the government of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon a much-needed boost.

Mr. Zedillo took office in December promising the assassinations would be cleared up and that the ``rule of law'' would be established for all Mexicans. And now Zedillo, under heavy attack for the country's deepening economy crisis and for his handling of the guerrilla conflict in Chiapas, is being hailed by some for keeping one of his promises.

Radio and television news programs were laden Tuesday and Wednesday with juxtapositions of the arrest news with citations from Zedillo speeches. ``We will not rest until there is justice,'' he was quoted saying in his Dec. 1 inaugural address, ``Today more than ever Mexico must be a country of laws.'' On which note one radio commentator concluded, ``Now [Zedillo] is showing Mexicans he meant what he said.''

Arrest may backfire

Some analysts cautioned, however, that the Salinas arrest could backfire on Zedillo if the investigation offers nothing stronger on the former president's brother than what was revealed Tuesday.

``This is a historic event that has no precedent in post-revolutionary Mexico,'' says Alberto Arnaut, a political scientist at the Center for Economics Education and Research (CIDE) in Mexico City. ``But it is also something that could boomerang.''

Many observers say the danger for Zedillo is that he could end up reinforcing his image as a weak leader, as he did last month with his treatment of the Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas.

On Feb. 9, Zedillo went on national television to announce that Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos would be hunted down in the Chiapas jungles and arrested as an arms-running criminal. Within a week, however, Zedillo was switching gears, proposing a general amnesty for the rebels and insisting Marcos would not be arrested.

Not that much of the kind of public sympathy that benefits Marcos is likely to develop in Raul Salinas's favor. Holder of several high-ranking bureaucratic posts under his brother's tenure, the civil engineer had a reputation as a shady business and political dealer.

His name popped up shortly after Mr. Ruiz Massieu's death because of his long-time friendship with Mr. Munoz Rocha. But Raul Salinas claimed he had not had contact with his friend in 20 years. The attorney general's office claimed Tuesday that statement had been a lie, offering as proof alleged phone contacts between the two men after the September killing.

But if the Zedillo government's arrest of a former president's brother was unprecedented, Carlos Salinas also came up with an unprecedented action of his own. He said that ``significant errors'' committed in December - after he left office and the Zedillo administration came in - led to Mexico's current economic crisis.

Salinas said a gradual devaluation of the peso, rather than the rapid course followed, could have avoided a disaster.

He also expressed ``full confidence in the innocence of my brother.''

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