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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, a graduate of the Law School of Mexico’s National University in 1976. But until last year he had spent his entire professional life in one of Mexico’s most infamously corrupt and vicious institutions, the Federal District’s Ministerio Público, its judicial police force. He entered that institution in 1978, and served as chief of judicial detectives in various precincts of Mexico City. In 1986 he became chief of judicial detectives for the Federal District’s southern sector, and in 1989 he was appointed director of the district attorney’s agents in the downtown Cuauhtémoc precinct (which includes the US embassy, the Zona Rosa, the Alameda and the Zócalo, Colonias Roma and Asturias, the National Railways’ Buenavista Station, and Tlatelolco). In 1991 the district attorney appointed him prosecutor for two extensive precincts on the city’s west side, and in 1992 he reached the pinnacle of his career on the force as a chief of judicial detectives for the whole district. There he served until May 1994, when Humberto Benítez Treviño, the Federal District attorney, became attorney general and promoted him to national director of judicial detectives. Along the way he also learned from the inside about the media, taking part in radio and TV shows on detection, prosecution, organized crime, and public security.

In the complex world of the Mexican criminal-justice system in which he worked for sixteen years, how did Chapa do? Without a detailed investigation of his career, it is hard to tell. While he was running detectives or serving as prosecutor, no one I am aware of made a public issue of either a decline or an improvement in the quality of justice in Mexico City. It does bear noticing, however, that between 1990 and 1994 the city’s most notorious crimes were the kidnappings of four multimillionaires. Although the four were released, none of the cases has been solved, while the kidnappers netted at least $40 million. No one then complained about Chapa, but fearful businessmen and many others strongly suspected that the kidnappers were district judicial policemen (shrewder specimens than those recently caught trying to steal President Zedillo’s son’s car).

On Chapa’s appointment last December a few opinions of him surfaced. Among Federal District judicial police, many of them experts in the detection, as well as the commission, of larceny, blackmail, and worse, he had the reputation of a superfiscal, a super prosecutor. The center-left Party of Democratic Revolution, the PRD, took a very different view of his record. In the Chamber of Deputies on December 17, PRD deputies Ramón Sosamontes and Leticia Burgos denounced Chapa’s appointment. Referring to their experience in the Federal District they objected that his “common practice” had been “to invent criminals,” that he had continually harassed PRD members, and that he had “fabricated evidence” in a weapons-possession case he botched and lost against one of them in 1991. They also noted that Mario Ruiz Massieu, during his investigation of his brother’s murder, had accused the then attorney general, Humberto Benítez Treviño (a political godson of Carlos Hank González, one of the PRI’s most powerful and most entrenched bosses) of obstructing the investigation of PRI bosses suspected of conspiring to commit the murder. And it was Benítez, they recalled, who had promoted Chapa to chief of the district’s detectives and later to national director of detectives. Benítez, they said, had recruited Chapa to his political “team,” which meant that Benítez’s political loyalties would determine the decisions Chapa made as a prosecutor. In the view of the PRD deputies, Chapa was a frame-up artist and an ally of some of the PRI’s most ruthless bosses; as a prosecutor, he was not to be trusted to bring the truth about the assassinations to light. Even some PAN deputies wondered whether the new attorney general, Lozano Gracia, their former PAN colleague, would try to explain or defend the appointment; he did neither.

Chapa’s performance since then has been true to the traditions of Mexico City’s judicial police. He has proven himself a master of leaks to the press and television in order to excite the public’s expectation of new revelations and strengthen support for himself and his office. The evidence he has actually presented in Raúl Salinas’s case, which he says proves Salinas’s guilt “without a doubt,” is entirely circumstantial. It is based on the hearsay remarks of alleged co-conspirators which were extracted months after their original testimony, and on his own statements that there is a “strong presumption” of guilt. For Salinas’s presumed motives Chapa has obviously drawn on old issues of the Mexico City weekly Proceso, which suggest, for example, that an alleged plot by the Salinas brothers to remain in power led to the murder of Colosio. But he has not put forward a single fact to support that suggestion. The evidence he has circulated about Mario Ruiz Massieu is also flimsy. Against the man who accused Chapa’s own former promoter, Benítez Treviño, of blocking investigation of the murder, Chapa has used the unexamined hearsay remarks about Raúl Salinas to make the charge of obstruction of justice. And he has spread the rumor that Ruiz Massieu may have connections with drug cartels; but Chapa has not indicated how or why this is the case. Nor has he said what that would have to do with his charge against Mario Ruiz Massieu that he covered up the murder conspiracy. So far, the evidence presented in the extradition case in Newark has been very thin indeed.

Some ugly questions should now be asked. Is Chapa, a dubiously distinguished veteran of one of Mexico’s main bases of corruption and vice, now appointed to solve three crimes of state, actually prosecuting the innocent while the guilty go free—or so that the guilty may go free? Might he be doing in these cases what he accuses Mario Ruiz Massieu of having done in his brother’s case—doctoring the files on all three assassinations? After Chapa’s expert work on those files, will it be reasonable to consider any of them to be seriously reliable?

As gross as President Zedillo’s mistake was in choosing Chapa, still more grave will be the difficulty in dropping him. Chapa has numerous powerful people “by the short hairs,” as LBJ used to say. He may already have found, or prepared a claim to find, their names implicated in new testimony he has been collecting about the assassinations. He could even leak the allegation that the attorney general and the president are hiding something, and if the press responds as it has before, the public will go for that, too.

The campaign for the rule of law in Mexico cannot proceed while the unsupported cases Chapa has developed and publicized against Raúl Salinas and Mario Ruiz Massieu are accepted as valid. Perhaps other cases against them would stand. But until a legally constituted authority makes Chapa account for his behavior, and dismisses him if he has been reckless, and also disciplines the units of the judicial police that he controls, the dream of legal justice in Mexico, and of a responsible investigation of three assassinations, will remain a sad joke.

June 15, 1995

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