Recent events in Mexico again remind us that unpleasant surprises would more infrequently confound us commentators if we assessed the motives of statesmen with the severity we apply to those of mafiosi.

The President of Mexico has arrested his predecessor’s brother for complicity in the murder of a mistrusted capo in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a governing instrument no less venerable but altogether more commanding than its American cousin, the Gambino crime family. Raúl Salinas’s commitment for trial has every smell of those occasions when the new Don moves to dispose of the old Don’s siblings. Until now all blame for the September 28 hit on PRI Secretary-General José Francisco Ruíz Massieu had fallen upon Manuel Muñoz Rocha, congressman for the state that is a stronghold of the Gulf narcotics cartel. Raúl Salinas cannot fairly be described as a Gulf soldier, but his personal friendship and commercial cooperation with the Boss of its Bosses would appear to qualify him as an associate.

There is no way to assess the chances of Raúl Salinas being well and truly tried. Even though its agents seem to use the streets as capital punishment sites as prodigally as the Gambinos do, Mexico’s system of justice is insufficiently developed in the solicitude for the rights of the accused that now and then light up the Cosa Nostra commission’s judicial processes.

President Ernesto Zedillo has certified Raúl Salinas’s incarceration as proof that he is “putting an end to impunity.” The impunity he condemns has never, of course, existed for the Mexican poor; the writ of its absolutions is confined to the PRI’s paladins and their lieges. Americas Watch precisely described the distinction a few years ago when it reported on the fate of a group of peasants hired to harvest a landowner’s marijuana crop. Each of them was serving seven years as a drug trafficker, and their employer went unarrested.

The narcotic industry’s contribution to Mexico’s now dissipated economic miracle passed conscientiously unmentioned for years until now, when Silvana Paternostro dares to engage it in the Spring issue of World Policy Journal. Her title is “Mexico as a Narco-Democracy,” which may be a misnomer, since there is little enough democracy in Mexican affairs and none at all in Mexican narcotics. The government’s swollen army of anti-drug warriors functions to harry small traffickers and either leave the oligarchs alone or serve them on demand.

Statistics on the criminal revenue share of any country’s gross national product are invariably dubious, and Paternostro may stretch too far when she estimates the annual cash flow of the Gulf drug cartel as “between $10 billion and $20 billion.” But, all the same, some vastness of fortune may be inferred from last year’s conviction of two American Express officers for laundering $20 million for Gulf.

Gulf is the property of Juan García Abrego, patron and senior partner of PRI congressman Manuel Muñoz, suspect paymaster for the contract killers of the PRI’s secretary-general. But then the American bankers who dry-cleaned Gulf’s cash were turning a blind eye toward its source with the discipline of good citizens following behind their State Department’s lead.

When President Clinton was advancing the North American Free Trade Agreement and exalting Mexico’s stability and promise, he had every official reason to know and forbore to say that 89 percent of America’s cocaine imports are shipped in from Mexico.

The quarrel over NAFTA was settled when Ross Perot, its loudest opponent, lost a debate with Vice-President Albert Gore. Gore’s was the voice of informed reason and Perot’s was the screech that betrays the fantasist. And now the sequel of the President’s NAFTA treaty is his encumbrance by a $20-billion Mexican loan guarantee and a widening public surmise that Perot may have been the realist and Clinton the fantasist. Revelations like that ought at last to teach us not to dismiss a man’s arguments just because he sounds like a nut.

Copyright © 1995 Newsday, Inc.

This Issue

April 6, 1995