Mexico: Another Nail In The Coffin Of Reform?

Mexico is lurching into what's likely to be an increasingly bitter midterm election campaign in 1997. President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon signaled its start by sacking his embattled attorney general, Antonio Lozano Gracia, on Dec. 2. Officially, Lozano, a member of the conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN), was fired for making little headway in investigations of high-profile assassination and corruption cases. But his brusque removal seems sure to heat up the political warfare between the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the PAN. "The PAN-PRI electoral battle is going to be ferocious," says political scientist Sergio Aguayo.

Zedillo had named Lozano to his Cabinet to show he was serious about leading Mexico from a one-party monopoly to a plural democracy. And by entrusting sensitive probes and cleanups of corrupt police to a prosecutor from outside the PRI, Zedillo hoped to give credibility to his pledges of reform. But the PRI's losses in local elections last month are believed to have increased pressure on Zedillo from within the party to remove the prominent opposition figure from his high-profile post. The PRI-dominated Congress also rejected key parts of a multiparty pact that Zedillo had promoted as a way to make elections fairer. Increasingly, Zedillo's political options are being limited by PRI heavyweights.

Lozano had become vulnerable because of a series of mistakes in his two years as attorney general. His investigation of the 1994 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio had bogged down, and he failed to win extradition from the U.S. and Europe of businessmen and a former official charged with corruption. In his efforts to prove charges of illegal enrichment against Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Lozano stirred complaints by Swiss authorities that his team leaked secret Swiss information on Raul's bank accounts.

Most recently, Lozano's detectives consulted clairvoyants and uncovered a skeleton on Raul Salinas' property. They claimed it was that of a missing congressman, said to be Raul's co-conspirator in the 1994 murder of the PRI's secretary general. But that theory fizzled when forensic experts from the U.S. could not identify the skeleton.

Now, Lozano's successor, Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, the National Human Rights Commission's respected president, will also face tough obstacles in trying to wring better results from Mexico's discredited judicial system. "No one seems to be able to control the attorney general's office," says Aguayo. "It is penetrated by narco-traffickers, and it simply doesn't function."

A SLOW RECOVERY. In fact, heading into his third year as president, Zedillo has little progress to show on his three chief promises. Besides an improved justice system, he pledged to combat corruption and solve high-profile assassination cases. And while he has managed to stabilize the economy after the December, 1994, peso collapse, the recovery is slow. Most Mexicans still feel the country is mired in crisis.

The key question now: whether Zedillo can withstand political pressures to rev up the economy at the risk of inflation and big deficits. His scheduled one-day visit to New York on Dec. 9 to meet with business leaders and foreign policy experts is aimed at assuring international opinion that he can keep Mexico's economy on track. But by removing the only opposition figure in his Cabinet, Zedillo has discarded the multiparty cooperation he hoped would be the trademark of his administration. The stage is set for a rough-and-tumble election year.

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