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What's Rotten In The State Of Mexico




Guerrillas, Stockbrokers, Politicians, and Mexico's Road to Prosperity

By Andres Oppenheimer Little, Brown -- 367pp -- $24.95

Toting Uzi submachine guns, two dozen Presidential Guards assigned to protect former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari after he left office careered in armored vans through Mexico City's streets on Feb. 28, 1995. They were headed for Salinas' sister's house, where his brother Raul was staying. Their orders from the ex-President: to prevent Raul's impending arrest for suspected involvement in the September, 1994, assassination of the general secretary of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But the house had already been surrounded by another detachment of Presidential Guards and elite police sent to arrest Raul on orders approved by President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Salinas' successor. With only minutes to spare, a clash was averted by a radioed order from the guard's commanding general to the approaching group to turn back.

That hair-raising episode is a sample of what Andres Oppenheimer, senior Latin American correspondent for the Miami Herald, refers to in the title of his book, Bordering on Chaos. Underlying a spate of assassinations that started with the murder of the PRI's presidential candidate in 1994, Oppenheimer says, is a gradual meltdown of Mexico's one-party political system. While the PRI's loosening grip has allowed opposition parties to win some state and local elections, a full-fledged multiparty system with the checks and balances of a modern democracy hasn't emerged.

There's more journalism, enlivened by anecdote and detail, than political deep-think in Oppenheimer's readable account of what's going on in Mexico. But the author accurately diagnoses Mexico's malaise: While safeguards against outright fraud made the vote count the cleanest ever, the political process that elected Zedillo and a PRI-controlled congress in August, 1994, was--and is--the most unfair in Latin America except for Cuba's. It left Zedillo with neither a political mandate nor the arbitrary powers of his predecessors to deal with Mexico's festering problems.

That explains why a stalemate continues in the two-year-old rebellion in Chiapas while lawlessness spreads across the nation. An estimated 900 bands of armed criminals are terrorizing citizens. Drug kingpins are winning immunity from arrest and prosecution by lavishing huge bribes. "In Mexico, the police are for sale, and the criminals are buying," says Oppenheimer.

Mexico may be starting to climb out of the recession triggered by the peso's 1994 plunge and the competition unleashed by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But an economic upturn without political and institutional reforms won't protect Mexico from future collapses, Oppenheimer warns. Although Zedillo has promised steps to create a fairer, more open political system, it's doubtful he can control the PRI. That's because it is not a party with an ideology but rather a political tribe with competing clans and caciques, or bosses, linked mainly by their common quest for the spoils of corruption.

Pursuing this thesis, Oppenheimer, a co-winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Iran-contra coverage, ranges across the map and the political spectrum. In the backward south, he interviews Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatista guerrillas' Marxist leader, and in the industrial north, he takes a look at Monterrey Technological Institute's cyberclassrooms.

His book title also refers to the U.S., hitched by NAFTA to the turbulent country on its border. "No U.S. Administration wants to hear the bad things about Mexico," Oppenheimer quotes former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Cresencio "Chris" Arcos as saying. "It would be put in a domestic political position to have to do something about them." One result is a double standard that has Washington leaning harder on Colombia than on Mexico to crack down on drug trafficking.

Oppenheimer keeps his main focus, though, on the PRI. Mexico's stability over the next five years will depend heavily on whether and how Zedillo carries out his pledge to disentangle the government from the PRI. In the past, the party got an estimated $1 billion annually from the government, mostly disguised as public-works spending. Backed by the government's powers of patronage and regulation, the PRI is able to mobilize support from unionized workers, business tycoons, and even street vendors.

Some of Oppenheimer's liveliest passages are his accounts of meetings with "dinosaurs," the entrenched political barons who are determined not to relinquish their grip on power. One such is Manuel "El Meme" Garza, a wealthy rancher and PRI political operative. He entertained Oppenheimer at his Mexico City home with a late-afternoon lunch featuring milk-marinated goat that had been flown that day from his ranch in Tamaulipas state, washed down with a bottle of 1984 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Garza warns that relaxing the PRI's centralized hold could destabilize the country, leaving power in the hands of regional bosses.

What President Zedillo must do, Oppenheimer argues, is to strike a deal with the opposition parties on far-reaching reforms, from elections to curbing corruption. There are few signs that this will happen. But if Mexico stalls halfway between one-party rule and full democracy, it could indeed be risking chaos.BY JOHN PEARSON

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