The Strange Case of Pablo Chapa

Mexico’s President Ernesto Zedillo is campaigning for equal justice before the law in his country. Good luck to him. He and his fellow Mexicans will need all the luck they can get if he acts as he has so far in the case of Raúl Salinas de Gortari.

This is a strange case, complicated, counterintuitive, and very important in Mexico. Raúl Salinas is the brother of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He was one of his brother’s main political agents, a principal combatant in the continual conflicts between President Salinas and the country’s established political bosses, and he had a major part in making Zedillo president. Many political enemies of Carlos Salinas and Zedillo in the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, as well as opponents on the left and right, hate Raúl Salinas. He now sits in Mexico’s maximum-security prison on charges of masterminding the assassination last September of another major political figure in the past government, one of his and his brother’s closest allies, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Raúl Salinas’s enemies and opponents long swore that he would go to prison. But in their dreams he would be charged with crooked business deals, never political insanity.

In a weird twist on the case, the assassinated Ruiz Massieu’s brother Mario, who eight months ago was an assistant attorney general investigating his brother’s murder, also now stands accused—of having covered up evidence of Raúl Salinas’s conspiracy. The US government, which at the Mexican government’s request arrested Mario Ruiz Massieu last March in Newark, has recently commenced extradition proceedings to return him for trial in Mexico.

President Zedillo has a part in these cases because he appointed the man who brought the charges, Special Prosecutor José Pablo Chapa Bezanilla. Last December 16 he gave Chapa the enormous, and unprecedented, responsibility for solving all three of the assassinations that have recently shaken Mexico: that of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, killed by gunmen at the Guadalajara airport in 1993; that of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio (whom Zedillo succeeded) in Tijuana in March 1994, and that of Ruiz Massieu in September 1994.

Was that a good idea, politically, as well as for the rule of law in Mexico? Who is Pablo Chapa? Is he a Mexican Archibald Cox or Kenneth Starr, or a Mexican version of the heroic Italian magistrates in Italy’s great corruption cases? Neither the Mexican nor the American press has yet reported much about Chapa except to cite his public statements. Both seem to have assumed that the previously impeccable record of Mexico’s attorney general, Antonio Lozano Gracia, a member of the center-right National Action Party, the PAN, warrants complete trust in the special prosecutor, too. But if Chapa’s own record can serve as the basis for judgment of his competence and character, it shows that he is exactly the wrong man to have the job he has.

Chapa, forty-two, is a lawyer …

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