Las Americas

Zedillo's Top Ten


“There is no room for corruption in the new PRI!” Labastida repeats at every whistle stop. There is one problem with Labastida’s “moralization” crusade. As the candidate of the PRI, the system he promises to reform is the one dominated by his party and its outgoing president. After holding office for the one six-year term the Mexican constitution allows, the seemingly incorruptible Ernesto Zedillo has maintained an image as the Mister Clean of Mexican politics. Are the Zedillo years so fraught with corruption that they require a headline-grabbing clean-up campaign? (Yes.) Or is this just classic PRI election-year theater, in which the successor, after being chosen and blessed by the outgoing president, is permitted to attack the old régime in order to establish his independence? (Yes.)

Mexico has seen these moral crusades before, the most memorable being Miguel de la Madrid’s mid-eighties presidential campaign, which so frequently promised “moral renovation” that outgoing President José López Portillo might have begun to believe he was going to be prosecuted for his six years of plunder. But the crusades are predictable and cyclical, occurring at the end of the sexenio of each outgoing president — which is not to suggest that the Zedillo administration is not in need of some moral renovation, even if it is a bit late in the game. Despite his high ratings (68 percent voiced approval in the most recent polls), the Zedillo administration has proven to be one of the most corruption-ridden in recent memory. Scandals associated with his presidency include his own campaign finance dealings, his brother’s questionable real estate operation in Chiapas (which makes headlines at least once a month), and a policy of impunity for the nation’s top drug lords. A thumbnail sketch of Ernesto Zedillo’s ten most scandalous scandals reads like a Mexico Babylon:

1. Campaign Slush Fund. To assist the late-starting presidential campaign that got underway when Zedillo was designated the candidate to replace the assassinated Luís Donaldo Colosio, the PRI solicited an estimated $50 million in contributions (from two bankers who had looted their newly-privatized banks, and the director of the holding company for the nation’s two recently privatized state airlines). All three subsequently fled the country rather than wait around to reap the rewards of their largesse or perhaps face investigation. The embezzled money was later charged to a bank bailout fund sponsored by Zedillo, which will cost taxpayers $80 billion over the next thirty years. FOBAPROA (the original acronym for the fund) is as well known here as is Watergate and all the subsequent gate-suffix scandals in the United States.

2. Grain Rustling. CONASUPO is another agency acronym that has become synonymous with scandal, although the argument could be made that the scandal occurred before Zedillo became president. Yet Zedillo was behind the scenes at CONASUPO, when the defunct state grain-distribution agency was directed by the brother of reviled (and self-exiled) ex-president Carlos Salinas. Salinas’ black-sheep brother Raúl, now serving time in a prison his brother built, might have been the most corrupt CONASUPO director ever. But during that same Salinas Bros. era, it was Secretary of the Budget Ernesto Zedillo who approved an $18 million rebate to Salinas crony Roberto González Barrera. González Barrera (Mexico’s “Tortilla King”) is the owner of the Maseca corporation, which monopolizes the market for the Mexican staple. When a congressional commission investigated the rebate in 1995, and New York Times correspondent Anthony DiPalma reported Zedillo’s involvement, the President’s office went ballistic, and the Times removed DiPalma from Mexico days later.

3. Where’s Mario? Mario Villanueva was a rising star in the PRI, often embraced by Ernesto Zedillo when he passed through Cancún, the commercial capital of Quintana Roo and the crown jewel of Mexico’s package tour industry. But in addition to serving as governor of Quintana Roo, Villanueva sat on the board of directors of the Cali-Juárez Cocaine Cartel. According to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informants, he made the Quintana Roo coastline the most porous cocaine route in the Caribbean, and as Villanueva’s term in office drew to a close, indictments were prepared. But the governor gave authorities the slip. After visiting his PRI colleague, Governor Victor Cevera Pacheco, in neighboring Yucatán, Villanueva vanished. Zedillo’s Attorney General Jorge Madrazo has tried to wiggle out of responsibility by claiming he didn’t have the authority to arrest Villanueva until after he stepped down from office.

4. The Lord of the Skies. Amado Carillo, the most wanted narco king in all of Latin America, flew DC-7s full of Colombian cocaine into Mexico, earning him the name “El Señor de los Cielos.” Zedillo’s drug cops, however, were never quite able to catch up with Carillo, which was also the case with other established drug barons here (notably the Arrellano Félix brothers of Tijuana). In July 1997, the Lord of the Skies rented out an entire Mexico City hospital and checked himself in for plastic surgery. He reportedly died during a liposuction procedure. The hospital in the swank Polanco district is less than a mile from Los Pinos, Zedillo’s official residence.

5. Play it Again, Sam. Casablanca was the codename for a U.S. Treasury Department money-laundering sting, in which a score of crooked Mexican bankers were lured to the Casablanca Casino in Las Vegas. On their way to a local whorehouse, the bankers were busted on charges of laundering narco-money. U.S. Treasury agents have no confidence in Mexican federal police, so they informed their counterparts of the investigation, some of which was conducted on Mexican soil. Embarrassed by the surprise sting, a red-faced Zedillo labeled the Casablanca affair a violation of national sovereignty and demanded the extradition of the U.S. agents for trial in Mexico. The real scandal, however, was that the agents working in President Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department in Washington could solve a crime that Ernesto Zedillo’s federal agents had ignored in Mexico.

6. La Paca and the Magic Skull. When Ernesto Zedillo named a member of the conservative opposition Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) as his attorney general, he made history in Mexico. Antonio Lozano (the first non-PRI cabinet member that any living Mexican could remember) was ordered to find out who was responsible for the most sensational assassinations of the Salinas years — those of the Roman Catholic Cardinal of Guadalajara, PRI presidential candidate Luís Donaldo Colosio, and PRI Secretary General José Francisco Ruiz Massieu. But Lozano selected a tainted Mexico City prosecutor, Pablo Chapa, to lead the investigation. The key to solving the murder was finding missing PRI legislator Manuel Múñoz Rocha, believed to have hired the hitman on a ranch near the Texas border. The pressure was on investigators to find Múñoz Rocha, and in October, 1996 Chapa did, by digging up a skull (buried on a ranch owned by Raúl Salinas) and declaring the skull his remains. It was the wrong skull, having been planted on the ranch a clairvoyant nicknamed La Paca, who had the vision to lead the police there, and by Raúl’s Spanish ex-lover, to whom Lozano and Chapa had paid over a million pesos to set the scene. An embarrassed and angry Zedillo had to fire them both.

7. The Suicide of Ruiz Massieu Number Two. Mario Ruiz Massieu, the brother of the slain PRI Secretary General José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, was appointed by Carlos Salinas to investigate the killing of José Francisco. There was one condition: Raúl Salinas could not be named as the target of the investigation. Raúl Salinas was eventually convicted of masterminding the hit, and after Raúl’s arrest, Mario fled to the U.S. He was detained by U.S. authorities when he arrived in New Jersey and failed to declare the cash he was carrying in his suitcase. The Zedillo administration failed in five attempts to extradite Ruiz Massieu. On September 15, 1999, the eve of Mexican Independence Day, Mario allegedly committed suicide, washing down an overdose of anti-depressants with a quart of vodka. (No Mexican government official has ever seen the body, so the rumor has Mario alive and singing in the U.S. Witness Protection Program.) Mario left a suicide note blaming Zedillo for the coverup in his brother’s death.

8. High Dollar Campaign in Tabasco. Roberto Madrazo was elected governor of Tabasco in 1994, the same year as Zedillo assumed the presidency. To win the election, Madrazo spent upwards of $70 million, thirty-five times the state legal limit and the same amount Bill Clinton claims to have spent to win the White House two years earlier. When leaked information from fourteen file boxes confirmed the obvious — that money was being siphoned out of Madrazo’s campaign fund — Andres Manuel López Obrador, president of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) took the violations to the Attorney General, the Finance Ministry, and the Supreme Court. But the authorities in Mexico City sent the case back to Tabasco, where a judge friendly to Madrazo deep-sixed the charges. Zedillo rushed to Tabasco to congratulate the vindicated governor. One notable coincidence is that Madrazo’s big backer was the same fugitive banker, Carlos Cabal Peniche, who had kicked in $25 million for Zedillo’s 1994 campaign.

9. Early Retirement. Two of Zedillo’s youngest cabinet ministers — Finance Minister Angel Gurria, 49, and Tourism Minister Oscar Espinosa, 46 — were caught receiving tens of thousands of pesos in questionable retirement pensions in addition to their million-peso-a-year salaries. While the majority of Mexican pensioners barely scrape by with one-hundred-dollar checks each month, Gurria’s and Espinosa’s pensions were provided by the National Development Bank (NAFINSA). That was not the only problem Espinoza caused at the bank. While he was director of NAFINSA, he handed out so many unsecured loans that he nearly broke the bank. Espinoza was also the PRI’s finance director during Zedillo’s 1994 election campaign.

10. Classic Dirty Tricks. During the Zedillo presidency, the “New PRI” has often resorted to buying votes and stuffing ballot boxes to win close elections. One case in point was the February 1999 governor’s race in Guerrero, which the PRI won by a scant 17,000 votes over the PRD. Vote buying was so conspicuous that the opposition created a “Museum of the Bribe” to display the merchandise offered to the voters in exchange for their votes. Another illustration of the PRI’s electoral fraud occurred in the November PRI primaries, themselves an innovation to create the impression that the voters, rather than Zedillo, were naming the party’s next presidential candidate. Zedillo’s candidate, Francisco Labastida, won in a primary that turned out 10,000,000 votes — a patently fabricated total giving the numbers of voters observed casting ballots.

The current reform movement, like President Miguel de la Madrid’s “moral renovation” in the mid-eighties, is part of the process, and no one here seems to expect any real change after the PRI candidate is elected in early July. “The problem with the anti-corruption campaigns is that they themselves are corrupt,” wrote Hector Aguilar Camin in an op-ed article in Proceso.

John Ross sends his fortnightly dispatches from Mexico City, and is finishing up his next book, “The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000.”