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Mexican TV Stations Crow Over Each Other's Links With Raul Salinas

Raul Salinas De Gortari, brother of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, must be having a good laugh in his jail cell in Mexico's Almoloya prison.

Several nights over the past week, Mexico's two largest television broadcasting companies have been going at each other through their respective nightly news hours, trying to pin the other with a closer past financial relationship to the vilified and rejected Raul. The battle appears to mirror Mexico's economic upper crust, which is now running from the very man that everyone seemed to want as his best friend not long ago.

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Televisa, Mexico's largest broadcaster owned by No. 3 on the Forbes list of Mexico's 15 billionaires, is engaged in a round of "was not, were too" with TV Azteca, the upstart company privatized in 1993 and owned by the rock-bottom-rung-holder on the list. At issue: Which network had its hands deeper in Raul Salinas's pockets?

The air-wave bickering began after recent newspaper reports revealed that Raul had transferred $29 million to a company owned by Ricardo Salinas Pliego in 1993. Days later, Mr. Salinas Pliego, the owner of a national chain of consumer electronics stores, bought two government-owned TV channels, 7 and 13, in a privatization sale, creating TV Azteca.

The transfer surfaced during questioning of Raul Salinas by Mexican and Swiss judicial authorities earlier this year about the origin of the fortune he amassed during his brother's presidency. The loot, which authorities in Mexico, the United States, and Switzerland now estimate at between $300 million and $1 billion, was squirreled away in bank accounts in at least seven countries.

Raul is in prison while under investigation for illegal enrichment and for allegedly planning the September 1994 assassination of top government-party politician (and his own former brother-in-law) Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

Salinas Pliego, no relation to Raul and Carlos Salinas, at first claimed that the $29 million had been transferred to one of his companies briefly while he was a financial "consultant" to Raul, but that he gained nothing from it. Still, it didn't take long for Televisa to jump on the revelation.

"Salinas + Salinas = 7 + 13," screamed the front page of the afternoon daily Ovaciones, published by Televisa news anchor and longtime Televisa power Jacobo Zabludovsky. The insinuation was that Raul Salinas used his insider's power to help Salinas Pliego buy the two TV stations from the government.

That was enough for the Televisa and Azteca news hours - with 33 percent and 28 percent of evening audience, respectively, to go at each other. "The defamation campaign is a reaction to [our] success," sniffed Azteca.

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But then came the revelation July 2, also from Ral's questioning last spring, that Abraham Zabludovsky - son of Jacobo and Televisa's afternoon news anchor - was, along with the president of Mexico's bankers' association, one of Raul's "most important" business partners during his brother's presidency.

Abraham appeared on his father's news hour to insist he is "no delinquent," but the association with Raul looked like it was too much even for Televisa, whose owner once called himself a "soldier" of the Salinas presidency. Abraham was fired Wednesday - only to be hired back Thursday, but apparently to lower-profile tasks.

That minor victory hasn't left Azteca crowing, however. After Mexico's Congress announced it would "review" the privatization sale that led to Azteca's creation, Salinas Pliego held a press conference Thursday at which he admitted the $29 million was a "loan" from Raul to complete the purchase of the TV stations. The deal was made at a time when to be a friend of the president's brother was "a distinction," he said.

The episode blackens the image of Mexico's TV journalism, which has taken important strides in recent years to shed its image as little more than government spokesman. It also feeds suspicions that all was not right with the extensive - and fortune-creating - privatizations of the Salinas presidency. The president of Mexico's largest business-owners' association, Carlos Abascal Carranza, said it would be "dangerous" for Mexico to question the general privatization process because of "obscure" dealings in a few cases.

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