The Bloody Trail of Carlos Salinas; Murder and Politics in Mexico

By Ross, John | The Nation, November 22, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Bloody Trail of Carlos Salinas; Murder and Politics in Mexico


Ross, John, The Nation


MURDER & POLITICS IN MEXICO

Flanked by a phalanx of bodyguards, Mexico's diminutive President, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, stepped briskly to the podium of the Grand Ballroom at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel earlier this fall to extol the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement. His audience, a standing-room-only crowd of C.E.O.s and free-trade enthusiasts from sixty-two nations attending approvingly as he reviewed his five-year record of privatization, wage suppression and associated neoliberal intended to make Mexico attractive to foreign investors.

Outside, on the sidewalk across Mason Street, several hundred mostly white anti-NAFTA activists milled about, displaying banners that protested environmental degradation and wholesale job loss to Mexico if free trade carries in the U.S. Congress this month. Others, mostly Mexican and members of the left-center opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (P.R.D.), charged forward as Salinas entered the building, screaming "Asesino!" and waving leaflets that asked, "Salinas: Who Killed Francisco Xavier Ovando and Roman Gil Heraldez?"

Ovando and Gil, aides to the P.R.D.'s leader, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, were murdered in 1988, seventy-two hours before ballots were cast in the election that eventually brought Salinas to rule. Many Mexicans believe that Cardenas was the rightful winner of that election, which Salinas snatched through a combination of ballot dumping, high-tech computer thievery and a compliant electoral college dominated by his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Although the murders have never been solved, it was not simply an old an unpunished wrong that animated the protesters in San Francisco. The political violence that inaugurated Salinas's presidency has continued to define it, a matter that has been obscured in much of the NAFTA debate.

In the five years since Salinas took power, 242 P.R.D. members have been murdered. Hundreds of others have been jailed, tortured and kidnapped, often in the wake of state elections in which the P.R.D. has claimed widespread fraud. Most recently, on October 17 and 18, several thousand pro-Cardenas farmers and their families, charging fraud in last summer's gubernatorial elections in Nayarit state, were gassed and beaten by security forces in the central plaza of the capital, Tepic. A dozen party leaders have been jailed since.

Next year, Cardenas will again seek to break the PRI's sixty-four-year hold on national government, this time in a presidential race against Salinas's handpicked successor. At the start of November, Salinas pledged "civility" in the upcoming election, but such assurances are hollow. For the P.R.D., achieving justice in three cases that bracketed Salinas's own accession in blood would be a concrete step toward preventing similar violence in the future. In each of those three instances of political murder, figures charged with investigating the killings have moved up the ladder of power and prestige despite their failure to affix legitimate blame.

It was on Sunday morning, July 3, 1988, that the bullet-riddled bodies of Ovanda and Gil, Cardenas's chief political adviser and secretary, respectively, were discovered inside a parked car on Rosario Street in Mexico City's Transit Colony. Only a few blocks from the murder scene in this seedy industrial neighborhood was the Mexican Congress and headquarters of the feared Judicial Police. PRI officials made light of the murders; 93-year-old Fidel Velazquez, czar of the government-controlled Mexican Labor Confederation, joked that the two had probably been slain "in a bar fight."

Although it is generally accepted that the hit was a warning to Cardenas forces of more violence should they claim victory, the timing and location of the killings may suggest more specific motives. The Mexico City daily El Financiero has speculated that the PRI had designed a secret password that permitted party "alchemists"--as election fixers are known--to access the Federal Electoral Commission's computers in order to manipulate incoming returns. …

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