Ernesto Zedillo
Ernesto Zedillo; drawing by David Levine


One night shortly before the Mexican elections in August, El Fisgon, a cartoonist for the left-wing daily La Jornada, one of the few credible sources in Mexico for news, tried to sketch for me what the events of 1994 had revealed to be the true condition of his country. It had been a tense and see-sawing year. A guerrilla uprising in the poor southern state of Chiapas, a string of kidnappings of businessmen, and the assassination of the favored presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, suggested that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for sixty-five years, was about to implode. On the right half of a clean sheet of paper El Fisgon drew a brand-new high-speed train, carrying only a couple of dozen passengers. Mexico’s outgoing president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was on board, he said. So was Ernesto Zedillo, the candidate who had replaced the murdered Colosio and would most likely succeed Salinas as president, and so were the rest of Mexico’s technocrats—a tiny elite generation of men in their forties and fifties who, like Salinas and Colosio and Zedillo, had taken Ph.D.s in government or economics at American Ivy League schools, and then risen in the past decade to direct policy in the PRI. On the left half of the sheet of paper El Fisgon drew an enormous steam locomotive, which looked to be scraping along, stopping and starting and letting out a foul smoke. This was the train the real Mexico was on: the Mexico of 87 million people, of peasants, workers, guerrillas, and the old colossal PRI itself. In the drawing, both trains were headed straight for a crash at the center of the page.

Such an apocalyptic view was not uncommon. Last spring, the conservative candidate from the National Action Party (PAN) was leading in the polls, running on the angry slogan, “For a Mexico Without Lies,” and in June, issuing a declaration titled “The Hour of Democracy,” a group of prominent intellectuals had begun to meet over breakfast to discuss the unprecedented “transition” they anticipated would be necessary come election day. Rumors circulating in the street indicated, to those who wanted to believe them, that Mexicans were hankering for change. Rumors, and corrosive suspicions: that the Zapatista guerrillas in Chiapas were a front for Nicaraguans, for Americans, for drug lords, or for the PRI itself. That Luis Donaldo Colosio had been murdered by drug lords. That the PRI was split internally, and Mexico’s own president had ordered the hit.

These sentiments did not suggest a smooth ride ahead for the PRI. But it was characteristic of this year’s traumatic events that wherever one stood, the view felt blocked and clouded over; whatever conclusions one had drawn could with a new day’s headline turn out to have been absurdly off-target. On August 21, after a year in which they had wondered for the first time if the PRI was mortal, Mexicans nevertheless elected the PRI candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, by a healthy margin of nearly 50 percent of the vote. The party even seemed to gather strength: it won 277 out of 300 elected seats in Congress, and with Mexico’s system of proportional representation it will hold 300 out of 500 seats, so that few deals will need to be brokered with the opposition. Pockets of fraud were noted, but the election was declared Mexico’s cleanest ever. Salinas, having recovered some of his Gorbachevian international reputation as a reformer, traveled in late September to New York to speak before the United Nations, where, pointing to the wonders he had worked in Mexico, he put himself forward as a candidate to head the World Trade Organization in Geneva. With a rapidity even the PRI must have found startling, the subject of democracy in Mexico all but disappeared.

Now, though, there has been a third reversal which the PRI’s recent swagger may have more trouble surviving. On September 28, only two days after Salinas’s New York speech, another PRI leader was assassinated. The victim was José Francisco Ruiz Massieu—the PRI secretary-general, who also would have been its majority leader in the new congress. Before the gun jammed, Ruiz’s killer was able to fire at his lower neck at a distance of a few feet. The killing took place at 9:30 AM on the sidewalk of a fancy business district in downtown Mexico City. Not only had a prominent politician died, but so had Mexico’s hope that the elections had acted as a tourniquet on the blood spilled this year.

At the very least, the investigation into José Francisco Ruiz Massieu’s murder, led by his brother Mario, who is the deputy attorney general, marks a preliminary peeling back of the curtain, so that Mexicans may finally begin to glimpse a few of the villains behind the recent upheavals. The hired assassin apparently was a horse trainer from Tamaulipas, a state thick with drug cartels operating along the northern border with Texas. The “intellectual author” of the killing (a phrase one hears often in Mexico, where every witnessable action is assumed to have a perfect blueprint, devised by an invisible planner) was allegedly a PRI congressman. A web of fourteen accomplices (a tourism promoter from Acapulco, various in-laws, and congressional aides) has also been fingered. Mario Ruiz Massieu has suggested that the killing was a vendetta carried out on behalf of a man his brother had jailed while he was governor in the state of Guerrero; the fact that Mario himself is responsible for combating drug activity in Mexico is, according to the theory, another possible reason that his brother was targeted.


Mario Ruiz Massieu has also suggested that his brother was killed because he was a potential agent of reform in the PRI—there is alleged to be a list of politicians who were to be murdered. The charge of in-fighting and rivalries in the PRI is one that the congressman’s replacement as the PRI majority leader, María de los Angeles Moreno, has downplayed in favor of the drug theory. In fact, though, the claim of a civil war inside the party only serves to confirm what many Mexicans have suspected since the killing of Luis Donaldo Colosio. But it is a particularly frightening specter to have to confront, because the Mexican version of democracy depends so explicitly on harmony.

When the party that is now called the PRI came into being in 1929, a little more than a decade after Mexico’s factious seven-year Revolution, its very purpose was to serve as a lid on a boiling pot. The crucial idea behind the PRI has been an ongoing pact, in which all the sectors of society—labor, peasants, and business—participate. The party is a pyramid extending from the president down to millions of political operatives who oversee everything from garbage collection to the running of the local hospital to the driving of busloads of people to the polls to vote for the PRI. To rise in the party required the personal approval of a superior, which always tended to encourage cliques and rivalries, but the arrangement did hold out a dream, a particularly Mexican parable of opportunity, for everyone in every sector, as a kind of glue. Even if he was poor and living out in the countryside, a young man could in the past join the PRI and fasten himself to a local PRI cacique. He could climb a ladder until he acquired his own circle of protégés, and his own sliver of the pie to keep or distribute as he chose.

In the mid-1980s, the nature of the pact was altered. To borrow El Fisgon’s model, technocrats like Salinas dreamed of hitching the rest of Mexico to the back of their fast train and, with the help of free-market reforms, dragging it to a solid place among the economies of the first world. During his presidency Salinas has renegotiated Mexico’s foreign debt, privatized the banks and dozens of government-owned concerns, opened the country’s stock market to foreigners, invited businesses from the United States, Japan, and Europe to set up in Mexico, and pushed through the NAFTA agreement with the United States. He was able to do this in part because, in December 1987, labor and business leaders and the central bank signed a Pact of Economic Solidarity to fight inflation. This pact was “voluntary,” not written into law—in other words, the technocrats decreed it, and the vast network of PRI unions carried it out. But for the PRI caciques who had not studied abroad, and for everyone along the base of the pyramid who was not in a position to make money on the sale of the government phone company, the new pact required sacrifice; since it was signed, Mexicans have lost 30 percent of their buying power.

There were different strategies for camouflaging the stress that the new arrangement had created. There was a strategy of simply ignoring it: to the Mexican press this year, the Zedillo campaign issued a biographical pamphlet with extremely simple language and childish illustrations of the candidate, reminiscent of American educational filmstrips on likable half-real historical figures such as Johnny Appleseed. The PRI was also brilliant at turning a mess to its advantage—at pointing to dissent and boasting of the new democratic possibilities it was creating. PRI officials became fond this year of saying, “Democracy is uncertainty.” For foreign reporters, whom it was especially important to convince of the Mexican people’s commitment to economic progress, José Angel Gurría, the PRI secretary for international affairs, prepared a sophisticated media kit, including a glossy booklet which he particularly recommended to me for background entitled The PRI and Mexican Democracy.


Since 1929, the PRI has participated in 12 presidential elections; in 24 federal and state legislative elections; in 360 gubernatorial elections and in 56,360 municipal elections. In its 65 years no national or local election has been canceled. The Revolution has never renounced the democratic legitimacy granted by the ballot.

For this reason, no other Mexican party has such vast historical experience. The fact is, all the minority parties lack its broad and proven organizational capacity. The PRI is the only party with nationwide electoral influence.

This talk of a track record sounds reasonable, like simple evidence of a concrete achievement—the PRI has been able to “roll with the punches,” Gurría likes to say—to American ears. But all kinds of roads, straight and crooked, lead to “nationwide electoral influence”; the passage above could apply to any government that has the people comfortably under its thumb. In his essay “The Sham Republic,” which was published in 1990, the Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid tried to find a name for the PRI method of government. Zaid’s essay was a response to the famous accusation by Mario Vargas Llosa, which had scandalized a Mexican conference of intellectuals that same year: Vargas Llosa said that Mexico, with its spongy ideology and genius for coopting dissent—rather than crushing it altogether, which might strengthen the resolve of the dissidents—was the “perfect dictatorship.” According to Zaid, Vargas Llosa was too harsh. Neither in the ancient Roman sense of temporary powers assumed in time of war, nor in the sordid Latin American sense of a strong man stealing office in a coup and holding onto it for life, was Mexico a dictatorship.

Yet it was impossible to call Mexico a democracy, either. What was lacking in modern political science, Zaid wrote, was a study of the lie as a form of rule. The Mexican lie was not like the rigid, ideological, all-inclusive lie of Fidel Castro. It was flexible and selective. It was to be found in the corruption tolerated and often promoted by the government, which led to hidden charges—money pocketed by government officials or by police on every transaction from the renewal of a business license to the purchase of a street taco—and amounted to an enormous undocumented tax on the average Mexican citizen. It was in the custom of a president who, nearing the end of his sexenio, sends a letter of congratulations to the person selected by the PRI, after long, careful deliberation, when everyone knows that the new candidate was selected by the incumbent’s personal whim. It was in the Mexican government’s selected strategic criticism of American foreign policy, its occasional declaration of independence from the United States, when everyone knew that the sacrifices being asked of the Mexican people had been copied out of American textbooks, in consultation with American advisers, in order to please American investors.

On a trip to Mexico before the elections it sometimes seemed to me that Mexican people had come to believe that whatever the government says, exactly the opposite must be true. You might expect this utter mistrust to favor the opposition, but often it boomerangs to further strengthen the PRI, for Mexicans still tend to regard the country’s politics as a puppet show in which every character is Tartuffe. Opposition leaders must secretly be in league with the PRI, or at least not as different in philosophy from it as they claim to be. The more an opposition candidate in the recent elections tried to distance himself from the PRI, the more he opened himself to attack as quixotic or as an outright liar. Earlier in the 1980s, before the leftwing candidate Cuauhtémoc Càrdenas founded the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), he had been for one term the PRI governor in the state of Michoacàn. Càrdenas was therefore exactly as corrupt and authoritarian as a PRI candidate—or even worse than someone from the PRI, because he pretended to be different. As for the right-wing PAN candidate, Diego Fernàndez de Cevallos, by summertime, when his campaign began to lose momentum, he was suspected of cutting a secret deal with the PRI—give my party x number of governorships and I’ll take a fall.

For all of this to happen, there had to be someone up above working the puppet strings and moving the plot along, and in the popular mind this was the president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The biggest lie in Mexican politics, according to Gabriel Zaid, is not corruption (we Americans, after all, have our police corruption probes, and Mayor Daley delivering Chicago to Kennedy). It’s that the entire huge system—over a million PRI workers mobilized on election day—has in the past been at the disposal of a single man. The Mexican president gets to act like a godfather or a king; the form of rule the Mexican system most resembles is a monarchy.

I saw this almost worshipful attitude toward the president on a visit to Los Pinos, the official residence in Chapultepec Park. A press secretary was describing to me President Salinas’s concern for the Mexican people, which he demonstrates by visiting a different part of the country, a slum or a piece of farmland or a prosperous northern town, every Thursday and Friday. Wherever Salinas goes people wait in line to meet him, and it is common for them to press into his hand a letter they have prepared for the occasion. The letters up through October 1993 had been collected and representative samples published in a book, Mexico in Its Own Hand, which I was given so that I could see the special rapport between the people and the president, which was so characteristic of Mexican democracy.

The letters were divided into greetings, requests, complaints, etc. The majority were the emotional offerings of pilgrims seeking divine intervention. Even the most wretched complaint, like this letter from a former policeman now employed as a security guard, tended to open with a burst of praise:

With all due respect MY FAMILY and I thank you for what you have done for us MEXICANS, inasmuch as YOU ARE ONE OF THE BEST LEADERS THE UNITED MEXICAN STATES HAVE EVER HAD. May God preserve you and your family. May you live many years. You and yours. These are the greatest wishes of this humble family.

While out driving, this supplicant had been pulled over by the police and arrested by the police on trumped-up charges. He’d been punched in the stomach; he’d had to pay the police who arrested him two million pesos to stay out of jail; he’d had his pistol and a personal check and a jack stolen from the car; and he’d been detained again under equally rigged and unpleasant circumstances two weeks later. “THEY’RE TAKING HOSTAGES ON THE LOCAL ROADS,” the expoliceman wrote.

The law had not protected the ex-policeman in the past, so he looked for mercy to someone who sat above it. The word “prepotency” is rarely encountered in English, but in Mexico it is frequently used with reference to presidential power. Much of what a Mexican president accomplishes he owes to his status of being above the law. During his six years in office Salinas handpicked at least a dozen interim governors. All of his major reforms—the bank privatization, the breaking up and selling off of the ejidos, Mexico’s traditional communal peasant farmlands—required tinkering with the constitution.

Another key word: during the summer, ads appeared on television reminding people to vote, and the word used to reassure people that their vote was their own was not “private,” but “secret.” The ads were a novelty. New electoral reforms had been approved in the spring—a vote-counting system, a committee of citizens to oversee the count, a new and supposedly tamper-proof photo registration card—and the government appeared to join the opposition effort to educate the people about their new right to be heard. But the stress given to the secrecy of the ballot also seemed to suggest the possible disapproval and trouble that might await anyone who did not vote for the PRI, should his secret get out. (In the end, in fact, human rights groups observing a representative sample of voters estimated that 38.55 percent of the ballots were not cast in secret.)

And Carlos Salinas, who everyone knew had selected the technocrat Zedillo and imposed him on a reluctant party after the murder of Colosio, would not openly stump for his own candidate. This silent pretense of neutrality could be seen as a triumph of democracy—the president was above the fray—but looked at another way, it could mean the opposite: that the president was not after all a human being, with inclinations that had led him to join a particular political party and to support a particular candidate, but in fact, literally, the Mexican government.

When I went to Mexico City a few weeks before the elections and asked people what would happen on August 21, their reply was uniformly pessimistic, but also vague, and, I realize in retrospect, perhaps more a depressed deflection of the question than an answer. Está difícil, they always said, or Está un poco duro: it’s going to be tough. That the political structure itself could be changed remained a dream. In early August the newspaper La Reforma published a map of protest demonstrations clogging the main thoroughfares of Mexico City: teachers from the state of Veracruz, merchants from the state of Puebla, families of prisoners from the North Prison, oil workers from the state of Tabasco, oil-workers’ widows. The oil workers from Tabasco had been let go two years ago by Pemex, the government-owned oil corporation, but they claimed to be owed back pay of several thousand dollars each. Five hundred or so of them had come to Mexico City and were living with their wives and children in a gym in the historic downtown. Some of the men went out in the morning to protest, others to beg for food money. I asked one of the beggars which candidate he intended to vote for. He avoided answering, and at first I took this to mean that he was a member of some opposition party, probably the PRD, and didn’t want me to know. But as I pressed him I realized he was truly undecided. Every major party had approached the oil workers, he said, and he was waiting to see which one would come through with the best deal.

I talked to another man, a cab driver who claimed to despise the PRI. His heart was with Cárdenas, but he’d heard of a bargain slot in a brand new apartment building, with a low-money-down and good interest rates. He was to pick up the keys from a woman, a PRI official, on August 18. Without its being spelled out, he knew what to do three days later.


All year, though, there were signs that the old PRI machinery that strikes eleventh-hour deals with unemployed oil workers and restless cab drivers might fail. Throughout the winter there had been rumors that the Colosio campaign was inexplicably weak. The turnout at rallies was low. Most significantly, there were rumors that somewhere in the PRI chain of command the system by which reporters covering the campaign received a weekly bribe had broken down; envelopes containing money for reporters were not arriving on schedule. When Colosio was assassinated, the apparent internal crisis and the non-charisma of the new candidate led people to wonder for the first time in their lives whether the PRI might die.

As historic events go the televised presidential debate of the three main candidates on May 12, the first ever in Mexico, was an amateur hour. It introduced Mexicans to the limitations of the genre, but the framing of these three personae for public consumption was both exciting and discouraging—like lifting up a rock to discover vital insect life that had gone unnoticed for years. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, until now the leading opposition threat to the PRI, looked tired and melancholy, like a figure in a painting by Modigliani. Zedillo was the boss’s awkward untested son. The unexpected winner was Diego Fernández de Cevallos from the PAN. A litigator by profession, he behaved like an erratic Old Testament patriarch, pointing to the other two and shouting that they were unprepared liars.

Diego’s bravado (he was known by his first name or else as El Jefe, the Boss) broke with the style of the old PAN, which for most of the party’s history had been particularly insular. The PAN was founded in 1939 by Manuel Gómez Morín, a defector from the PRI. In one of the many weird circular turns of Mexican politics, the PAN grew up in outrage over the policies of the most popular and the most radical president of the century: Lázaro Cárdenas, the architect of the modern, corporatist PRI, and the father of Cuauhtémoc, who fifty years later was trying to tear the PRI down. Furthermore, Gómez Morín had previously started up Mexico’s Central Bank; his advocacy of a strong, self-sufficient Mexican economy anticipated Salinas’s policies much more closely than the ideas of any predecessor in the PRI.

The PAN, like the early Christian martyrs, is in for the long haul. Although it has a foothold among industrialists in the north of Mexico, the PAN’s constituents tend to come from the middle and the lower-middle class, which means they are too proud to accept handouts, but not well-positioned to get rich off the PRI. The PAN believes in a conservative Catholic moral code and in a democracy based on self-reliance. Its economic policy favors a strong free market, free trade, and the privatization of government holdings. As an American professor put it to me, the PAN is the one party whose workers get up in large numbers at 4 AM to drive people to the polls, not because they get paid, but out of an obsessive civic pride. Unlike the PRI and the PRD, which have a lineup of artists and writers at their disposal, the PAN has made no effort to enlist the support of intellectuals, and many intellectuals who are attracted to it feel unappreciated. One writer I spoke to sympathized with the party, but considered its leaders, on a personal level, disappointing—mere “soccer players.”

A few blocks from the National Cathedral in downtown Mexico City, I came across a shop of Diego t-shirts and bumper stickers for sale. The store was started last June by a compact and gregarious man named Victor Zapata Escalante. His mother, Zapata told me, had learned the Mayan language from a babysitter, and when she was still a young woman had gone from town to town to found the PAN in the Yucatán, one of the few regions in southern Mexico where the party has real strength. Once she was pistol-whipped by bullies from the PRI.

Zapata had a manner that many Mexicans adopt when they discuss politics: an intense seriousness and articulateness, as if performing a memorized turn in a debate. “I congratulate you for coming to my country to find out the truth,” he said. “The truth is that this country has been pillaged. That is the truth. The person who has power in the government has everything. He has money, he has good housing, and this is what more than six million people are lacking. They are dying of hunger. More than six million people live in the most disgusting misery you can imagine. I have been able to study some of the history of Mexico, and I can tell you that if we Mexicans had a peaceful revolution and confiscated all the goods that the government has stolen, Mexico would be able to pay its foreign debt five times over.”

An obsession with telling the truth and demonstrating the truth had long been the PAN’s drawing card, but lately a split had developed in the party. During Salinas’s presidency, Diego Fernández de Cevallos had been the PAN’s leader in congress, which meant that he was the party’s chief negotiator with the government. On several key occasions, Diego had brokered agreements with the PRI to help get Salinas’s economic policies through congress. There were people in the old guard of the PAN who accused Diego of collaborating with the hated enemy and thus ceasing to tell the truth. But others saw the negotiation as the chance for the PAN to move from prophecy into policy-making.

As for Diego, he did well in the election—at 29 percent, triple the PAN showing in 1988—but not as well as some expected. In the Mexican tradition, rumors sprang up that he had always intended to come in second—that the PAN was still watching from the sidelines, unwilling to blacken itself with actual power—or that he had been threatened and ordered to throw the contest, or that his macho energy had been a desperate show, because he was in fact dying. On the day of the contest Diego ate lunch with his family, and TV cameras captured him walking the streets of his neighborhood like anyone else, back to the usual.

The PRD accused the PAN of collaborating. The PAN accused the PRD of condoning the guerrilla violence. Instead of uniting in opposition to the Goliath PRI, the PAN and the PRD remained, throughout the election, isolated and marginal—the not-PRI of the right and the not-PRI of the left.

The PRD’s obsession was not morality but fraud. Impractical Cassandras pointed to flaws in the electoral process, despite the new photo ID cards and the indelible ink that was to be rubbed on voters’ thumbs. Why had the government needed one billion dollars to devise this new system? members of the PRD asked. Why did this one-billion-dollar system the government came up with, supposedly the most sophisticated in the world, in the end have voters folding a flimsy sheet of paper and stuffing it in a lightweight corrugated plastic box? Weeks before the elections, when I was still in the United States, I got a fax from Mexico saying, “It is going to be done. The fraud is going to pass through the optic fiber of Telmex that is going to be installed in irregular ballot counting centers. Irregular ballot counting centers can be located anywhere—in an elegant hotel, in a government building….” The fraud would be primitive, I was told, or it would involve the most devious computer tampering ever attempted. Most importantly, the alchemy would be imperceptible to observers, because it had been taken care of in advance.

These suspicions were the not-so-illogical response of people who suspect they’ve been tricked out of power. Under Salinas, dozens of local elections in Guerrero and Oaxaca and other states had been rigged, and there had been ugly, interminable skirmishes—takeovers of city halls by PRD supporters whose votes had been thrown out—which ended, not infrequently, in violence. (By the PRD count, between 1988 and 1994, 246 of its members had been killed.) And in July, solid proof was finally emerging of something people had long known to be true anecdotally. Six years ago, on the night of the last presidential election in 1988, PRI officials had arranged for the computer that counted votes to suffer “technical difficulties.” Although the result would never be known for sure, Cuahtémoc Cárdenas was leading at the time, and it was widely believed that he, not Salinas, should have won.

“He fills plazas,” a friend said of Cárdenas, and this was true. But the PRD was still more an umbrella for disparate interests held up by the figure of Cárdenas than an organized party. For the past ten years, the dream of the Mexican left had been to mobilize the country’s “civil society”—nongovernmental human rights organizations, grassroots neighborhood associations, and other groups that had begun to grow up apart from the PRI. One of the most impressive of these groups was the Asamblea de Barrios, which was founded in 1985 to represent poor people seeking better housing. It was the devastating earthquake of that year which had been the catalyst for the new activity. The PRI had failed to provide victims with food and water and clothing, and many poor people in Mexico City had discovered, for the first time in a long time, that they did better on their own.

I went to one of the Asamblea’s weekly meetings, which are held at twilight in an amphitheater just north of the old historic downtown. Most of the Asamblea members are house-wives for whom leaving a husband and children home alone takes great determination, but with vendors in the aisles selling tamales and corncobs dipped in candy and Coke and tequila, the atmosphere was friendly and distracted, like an afternoon of baseball. The women seemed highly dependent on the founder of the Asamblea, Marco Rascon, for guidance. Their attention was divided. While they listened they knitted and sewed decorations to be sold on the street.

After the meeting I went with Rascon to drop campaign literature in the north of the city, where he was a PRD candidate for congress. I remembered in the car that the neighborhood where we were headed, the Gustavo A. Madero district, was the same neighborhood where a month earlier a policeman had struck a little girl and her grandmother. This had been the third in a run of cases of policemen (almost certainly drunk) hitting innocent citizens, and the incident had provoked a kind of mob reaction that is uncommon in Mexico, where violence tends to be targeted—profit-related (drugs, robbery) or political. The mob had beaten the policeman and overturned the car and burned it until it was a pile of ashes, and when the firemen came (“and firemen are very beloved in Mexico,” the person who recounted the story had stressed), the mob had thrown rocks.

Twenty-six years ago, Rascon had been a leader of the student left at the University of Chihuahua, in northern Mexico. An astonishing number of the people who are now the key political and intellectual and human rights and business figures in Mexico turn out to have been students in 1968. The leader of the Zapatista guerrillas, Subcomandante Marcos, is believed to have been part of the movement and to have gone underground, arriving in the impoverished rural south sometime in the early 1970s, and President Salinas was a sympathizer from the sidelines. His brother, Raúl, did a stint as a Maoist in the early 1970s, and Salinas is said to have capitalized on Raúl’s expertise and on the experience of other former radicals in his plans for a program of rural relief which he launched in 1989. The program, called Solidarity, had set up committees throughout the countryside to manage the renovation of schools, road construction, improving the water supply, and other local needs. Under Solidarity, individual communities were to apply for limited funds, which were to be used on targeted projects. Thus in one stroke Salinas managed to narrow the government’s spending on social welfare, and, since the committees tended to be staffed by the PRI and to look kindly upon PRI requests, to shut the door on the opposition, restoring at least a little of the glue holding the party together that his austerity programs had eroded.

Marco Rascon had robbed banks to support the cause and had gone to jail from 1969 to 1972. After he got out, like many other leftists in Mexico, he spent the next ten years entangled in theoretical Marxist debates, and shunning mainstream politics. This election was important, he said, because although the left was embittered by the fraud in 1988, it had once again decided to place its faith in the polls.

We stopped at an abandoned milk factory, the roof of which had disappeared, so all that remained were unpainted brick walls with here and there a paneless window. Another meeting was underway here: thirty people were preparing to move into this space and turn it into a home. Rascon scribbled my name on a scrap of paper. The group leader introduced me and everyone applauded gravely. As Rascon and I left, the leader asked me to wait. He wanted “the visitor from New York” to know that they were not squatters. They had obtained the land through legal channels and “would defend it to the death,” he said. He showed me proof in a letter from the Mexico City government: “As of this date,” the letter read, “the DETRAC group has custody of Fraction ‘A3’ with a surface area of 1680.72 square meters.” Later in the car, Rascon told me that he was going to win. There was energy on the left that he hadn’t seen in years. But I remember thinking that if it came down to such basics as housing the PRD would have a hard time. Getting to the most marginal people was honorable, but it was an honorable and marginal entry in a contest the PRI would always win.

To broaden his appeal, Cárdenas had modified his opposition to Salinas’s economic reforms to the point of supporting NAFTA, until, on paper, his party looked not unlike the PRI without the money or the organization. When the Mexican people still failed to choose the PRD, the left felt stung. The final tally for the Cárdenas vote was 16 percent. Although this showing was undoubtedly lowered by fraud, it is not so far from what polls before the election indicated Cárdenas would get. Perhaps the left had grown so used to the government’s lies that it thought the polls lied, too. “The intellectuals have spent years saying that the Mexican people are victims, that the government never let them speak,” a friend told me after the elections. “Now they’re saying the Mexican people are just chickenshits.”


When Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in March, students of Mexican history, who used to have a rather static field before them—they laid bets on which current young protégé would be destapado, named to succeed the president, a guessing game but one with a discrete set of possibilities—had to invent a new narrative to describe the crisis in the PRI. What they came up with was the story of the reform wing versus the corrupt old guard poliíticos. Even if a few at the top truly sought a clean contest and hoped in the future to separate the party from the government, this group was said to be beholden to the fierce old PRI bosses whose methods had delivered it to office. These dinosaurios could not now be told to find another line of work, and if pushed hard they would kill. Colosio was said to have been a reformer, and now, in retrospect, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu was called a reformer, too.

But the killing of Ruiz Massieu has raised the frightening question of what inroads narcos have made in the PRI. The assassination has been linked to the Grupo del Golfo, one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico, which is said to transport more than half the cocaine traveling from South America to the United States. Since the elections, too, a former official in the attorney general’s office has testified before representatives of the Mexican government in Washington that Salinas’s communications and transportation minister, Emilio Gamboa Patrón, has ties to the Gulf cartel, that drug lords have an understanding with several top officials in the PRI, and that drugs were behind the killing of Colosio.

The drug issue complicates two key campaign pledges of Zedillo’s: reforming the PRI and reforming Mexico’s judicial system. It is a near certainty, for one thing, that Zedillo will not be as powerful as Salinas has been. Late in the campaign he began to sprinkle a line, ¡Vamos a ganar!—We’re going to win!—in his speeches to energize his listeners. But there was something absurd about the beneficiary of PRI machinery usurping the underdog’s line; it seemed to underscore his dependence on the party to get out the vote.

And after all the talk of democracy, in the new story—“the Colombianization of Mexico”—the violence this year has had very little to do with democratic birth pangs. What it resembles more than anything is a fratricidal Mafia turf war. The PRI is needed at election time, but the old modest promises held out by the party are more and more irrelevant. Drugs turn out, all of a sudden, to be a shining example of Mexico’s new economic miracle. According to The Mexico Report, a Washington newsletter: “The profits from drugs moving through Mexico into the US every year are more than twice the total revenues of Mexico’s petroleum industry and will roughly equal the cost of servicing Mexico’s total, $160 billion-plus foreign debt for 1994.”

Despite the recent troubles, the technocrats in Mexico continue to display a complacent self-regard. As Gabriel Zaid has written, those in power tend to take the Platonic view of government: what they have in mind for the country is by definition the Good. In August, I asked José Angel Gurría about the critics who say that Mexico’s new brand of leader has only an abstract sense of what day-to-day life is like for the average Mexican. “I think it’s a fallacy to suggest that when people go on and do a Ph.D. they are removed from reality,” he said. “What they have, effectively, is a much greater capacity to understand reality and the means through which you can change it. You’re more enlightened. You’re better educated. The fact that you are a citoyen du monde does not mean that you are less Mexican.” It was a strange twist, this idea that there is a politically correct desire in Mexico to tear down the educated: a university degree is so prized there that the word for a person with a degree, licenciado, is permanently attached to the name of anyone who has it.

But the technocrats are not without their own limited brand of idealism, their faith that if Mexico keeps the peso pegged to the dollar, and if Standard & Poor’s finally awards it an investment grade rating, everything will turn out all right. When you look at the statistic that 40 million people, or almost half of all Mexicans, are officially poor, the technocrats want you to picture the half-full glass, not the half-empty one; they want you to see the 40 million people poised to enter the market and buy their first Ford or Zenith. I asked Gurría what he felt Mexico needed right now more than anything. His answer was specific, wistful, and, given all of the strain Mexico had undergone in 1994, oddly past-tense: forty years ago, he said, Mexico had chosen the wrong model of economic development, one in which the state controlled everything. What Mexico needed now was to recover the ground it had lost in that single fatal error.

On September 24, after much debate, a new short-term pact was signed by Mexican labor leaders, business leaders, and the Central Bank. The currency will continue to be devalued by 0.0004 pesos per day against the dollar (it is estimated to be overvalued by as much as a third), and wage hikes and inflation will be held to 4 percent each. The pact “stresses continuity and stability,” The New York Times wrote approvingly, “in a system of mutual restraint by both business and labor, enhancing the attractiveness of Mexico as an emerging market.”

As the clearest example yet of Ernesto Zedillo’s plans for Mexico (the pact is understood to have been worked out with his approval) the narrow focus on inflation may not bode well for his team’s grasp of the current political crisis. Still, how Zedillo will fare once he takes office in December is hard to predict—as hard as it is to remember now, as Salinas tours the country every Thursday and Friday, appearing on television in a casual windbreaker, smiling and waving triumphally, that he started out weakly, too. At the beginning of his term he was heckled. He was regarded as ineffectual and publicly accused of stealing office. Worst of all, he looked and seemed perversely unpresidential—a studious Walter Mitty acting out one of his fantasies at the people’s expense. To remember this, and then to remember all that has happened in the intervening six years—the remaking of the economy that Salinas pushed through, then the failure to contain the changes he had set in motion—is to recognize that Mexico has entered a territory in which no one is likely to command the future. At last, and for better or worse.

October 20, 1994

This Issue

November 17, 1994