We have at last a certifiable official document which provides some information in the long scandal-ridden trial of Raúl Salinas de Gortari, currently identified as inmate number 0597-AJ-95 of the Mexican prison system. Until his arrest, in February 1995, he was somewhat less notorious—although well known where it counted—as the fun-loving, free-spending brother of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president of Mexico from 1988 to December 1, 1994. Officially, it is only the former president’s older brother who is being judged, but the trial has really become an exorcism of the Salinato—the six dizzying, hopeful years in which Mexico was governed by Carlos Salinas and which ended in chaos and ruin.

In accordance with Mexico’s legal code, public information about the trial is limited, and consists mostly of brief declarations to the press by the accused’s lawyers and by his prosecutors, and of occasional leaks by the attorney general’s office, which is in charge of the case. Reporters cannot attend the trial itself. The document we now have before us is a transcript of sworn testimony by the president’s brother, in answer to questions presented last March by Swiss banking authorities regarding the money he deposited in their banks. The document was leaked (this time, perhaps, not by the attorney general) and then published in full in the July 8 issue of the newsweekly Epoca. It is not a particularly forthcoming declaration but, to the degree that it exists at all, it is immensely enlightening:

Question Number Nine: Who were your financial, commercial, et cetera partners in [the days when Raúl’s brother was in power]? Answer: …In this deposition I am not giving the name of these investors because I know that the Mexican authorities would use this information to proceed against investors who trusted me, and that they would even take advantage of this information for tax payment purposes….

Question Number Forty: Why is there no written documentation [of the terms of a $50-million loan made to Raúl Salinas by one of his business associates]? Answer: …Because these investors deposited the money for these loans out of their own accounts and not from their companies, and for them, as rich men, the concept of money is different from what it is for those who have to work for a salary.

As it happens, the one-time First Brother was not jailed on charges of fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, insider trading, embezzlement, or profiteering—all subjects the Swiss were interested in—but for something that does not come up in the 8,500-word transcript: murder. The Mexican attorney general’s office would like to convict Raúl Salinas of masterminding the killing of his former brother-in-law, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu. This murder, a central event in the recent turbulent history of Mexican politics, is itself part of such a complicated drama that a brief recapitulation might be helpful.

The victim, Ruiz Massieu, was not only a former member by marriage of the Salinas family and a former governor of the violent and drug-infested state of Guerrero but also the newly elected secretary general of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. He was one of Carlos Salinas’s longtime political allies, and had been eased into the post by the president. Ruiz Massieu was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy Mexico City street on September 28, 1994, six months after the assassination of Salinas’s handpicked presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio. Ruiz Massieu’s brother, Mario, was appointed by President Salinas to investigate the crime.

Within days of the murder, Mario had arrested thirteen people—bumblers all, including the gunman, a young, barely literate ranchhand from the north whose submachine gun jammed and who was wrestled to the ground by a bank guard. There is evidence that nearly everyone arrested on Mario’s orders was badly tortured, and this makes their confessions suspect. But what they confessed was that they had been hired by a seedy, small-time PRI functionary, who was also arrested. The functionary, Fernando Rodríguez González, in turn confessed that the murder plot had been put together by his boss, an undistinguished diputado from the northern state of Tamaulipas. The diputado, Manuel Muñoz Rocha, has not been seen in Mexico since he was filmed arriving at the hospital where Ruiz Massieu was dying. Many people here believe that Muñoz Rocha too is dead. (He was last sighted in Texas a couple of weeks after the murder, in the company of important Mexicans with known drug connections.) With the discovery of the trail leading to Muñoz Rocha, Mario Ruiz Massieu became something of a folk hero; he had done a swift and efficient job of tracking down his brother’s killers, even though he failed to come up with a satisfactory explanation of a motive, or to identify the person or persons who were ultimately responsible for the plot Muñoz Rocha put together.


Nearly seven weeks into the investigation, on November 23, Mario Ruiz Massieu held an electrifying press conference, in which he a) announced his resignation and b) charged that unnamed “demons” within the ruling party stood in his way and prevented him from revealing the truth about his brother’s murder. In December, Salinas de Gortari handed over power to Ernesto Zedillo. On February 28, Pablo Chapa Bezanilla, the special prosecutor appointed by the new administration’s attorney general, announced the arrest of Raúl Salinas. According to the special prosecutor, the evidence pointed to the former president’s brother as the missing mastermind of the plot to gun down José Francisco Ruiz Massieu.

Mario Ruiz Massieu, the victim’s brother, then left the country. His destination was Spain, but he was arrested at Newark Airport on charges of bringing in large amounts of undeclared cash. Mexican authorities immediately filed a request for his extradition; Mario was guilty, the attorney general’s office said, of covering up Raúl Salinas’s role in his brother’s murder. He remains under house arrest in New Jersey, awaiting the result of the fifth extradition request to be filed by the Mexican government.


For several months now, the insider gossip has been that, although investigators have failed to come up with strong evidence to convict Raúl Salinas of murder, there is more than enough evidence of crooked business deals to convict him of a new charge, “inexplicable enrichment.” If this proves to be the case, it will be unprecedented: to date no such ranking member of the political elite has ever been held answerable for profits unlawfully gained as a result of his powerful connections.

But Raúl Salinas’s deposition, and the torrent of allegations that have followed its publication in Epoca, allow for other distressing speculations. At the very least the statement provides evidence that Raúl Salinas—a one-time revolutionary and the author of, among other works, a short book of erotic tales—did not arrive at his current predicament singlehandedly. Indeed, it is beginning to look as if, at one point or another during the six years that Carlos Salinas ruled, and during the preceding six years, when Carlos was the powerful secretary of planning and the budget, there was hardly a Mexican tycoon with whom Raúl wasn’t on close business terms.

He lent, for example, $15 million for unknown purposes to the president of one of the country’s largest banks. (That he made the loan took some time to establish. “Question number eighteen: [Whom] did you lend money to in the period from 1988 to 1995? Answer: …To the household help, to the chauffeurs and the stableboys, and to those employees who asked me.”) He borrowed $50 million (“…for an investment fund”) from the owner of Mexico’s largest cellular phone company. He was partners in a bus-manufacturing firm with José Madariaga Lomelín, head of the Mexican Bankers Association.

Was the President’s brother also on friendly business terms with Ricardo Salinas Pliego (no relation), a man who until just recently was merely the wealthy owner of a chain of electrodomésticos stores, but who now owns Televisión Azteca, the second largest television network in the country? He was not friendly at all, Ricardo rushed to say after Raúl’s downfall. But if that was the case, why did Raúl lend $29.7 million to Ricardo, as he admits in his deposition? The local papers and the Wall Street Journal took up the story, reexamining Salinas Pliego’s successful bids for Televisión Azteca in 1993. The network was auctioned off as part of Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s campaign to privatize unprofitable state enterprises. Bidders had been told that there would be a ceiling of $450 million on the bids and that if all the bidders matched that sum, government officials would award the station to the bidder with the “best proposal,” according to Epoca. In fact, however, the station was sold to the electrodomésticos Salinas for $656 million.

Televisa, the privately owned media giant which lost its near-monopoly status when Azteca was bought and revitalized, was delighted with the story (despite the fact that Raúl had been partners with one of its senior newscasters, who also happens to be the publisher of Epoca and his third partner in the bus company). A Televisa reporter who is well informed but not free of bias suggested an explanation for the $29.7 million lent by Raúl Salinas to Ricardo Salinas Pliego: perhaps it was a commission of just under 5 percent on the winning bid. (Ricardo Salinas’s own explanation—after he stopped denying the existence of the money—is that the $29.7 million was simply part of a package loan he put together from various sources to finance the purchase of Azteca, and the attorney general’s office, after calling him in for questioning, appears to have left it at that.)


Question number ten: What were your principal sources of income during the years 1988-1995? Answer: …On the private side, those related to licit business activity, and, on the public side, the salaries and benefits I was paid [as a government official, which he was, until 1992] and, lastly, my own savings and rental income…. At the beginning of 1994, as a reference, the total would have been around $10 million.

It is to alert Swiss authorities that we owe the discovery of a gap of at least $100 million between Raúl Salinas’s estimate of his wealth and reality. Imprisoned and pressed for cash, Raúl decided last November to send his wife and her brother to Switzerland, with a couple of suitcases and a withdrawal slip for some significant portion of the approximately $83 million he had deposited in a bank there under an assumed name. This misadventure led to Mrs. Salinas’s brief stay in a Swiss prison, and to the deposition by Raúl Salinas which was reprinted in Epoca.

At the request of Mexican officials, Raúl Salinas’s known accounts in Europe have remained frozen. Journalists have been calculating that $300 million would be the lowest realistic estimate of Salinas’s wealth. Meanwhile, Citibank, which handled Raúl’s money in the United States, including the transfer of the $50 million loan to a Cayman Island account, has retained Robert Fiske, the former independent prosecutor in the Whitewater investigation, to represent it in whatever legal complications may arise from the case.


If the Mexican justice system were to work with any degree of efficiency, the results of the two trials of Raúl Salinas de Gortari—for murder and “inexplicable enrichment”—could provide helpful answers to two essential questions: What has changed in Mexico over the last decade or so to turn it from a paragon of authoritarian stability into a country where members of the ruling elite take out contracts on each other? And, how is Carlos Salinas to be judged? He eased the transition from authoritarianism to a multi-party electoral system. He handed over power to opposition governors in three states, and in 1994 he presided over the first elections in which presidential candidates of opposition parties had a fighting chance against the candidate of the long-incumbent PRI. Carlos Salinas also took significant steps to modernize the economy. He sold off hundreds of state enterprises at well over their market price, easing the burden of these white elephants on a poor and overgrown state. He opened Mexico to world trade through GATT and NAFTA, renegotiated a vast foreign debt, and revitalized the peso.

Or perhaps he did something else. Perhaps he ordered the electoral ballots destroyed after his own election in 1988 so that no one would ever know how many votes were fixed. Perhaps he persuaded the conservative presidential candidate in the 1994 elections, Diego Fernández de Cevallos, briefly a front-runner, to stop campaigning once it was clear that his old enemy on the left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, had no hope of winning. Perhaps his brother Raúl was involved in rigging the bidding for state enterprises so that Salinas family cronies could buy them at enormous profit. Perhaps Carlos Salinas’s stubborn refusal to pay the political price of a long-overdue devaluation of the peso led to the current economic debacle.

Perhaps, according to one highly speculative but pervasive rumor, it was he and not Raúl who ordered the murder of his former brother-in-law. This rumor would have been astonishing two years ago, but it is now believed, according to polls, by millions of Mexicans. A Salinas-like character is featured ordering assassinations in the current top-rated telenovela on national television, and hardly a week goes by without a leading member of society (who might in the past have been a fawning supporter of Carlos Salinas) taking to the microphones to declare that the former president must be brought before the courts. In one of its most widely circulated versions, a variation of which is cited in Andres Oppenheimer’s Bordering on Chaos, the rumor goes that Salinas ordered the murder of his former brother-in-law, and even that of his own successor as well, because he thought that both men stood in the way of his desire to revise the constitution to allow for reelection, so that he could come back as president in the year 2000.

Mexicans have not lost their passion for this explanation of events, which invariably includes a retelling of the fateful incident in which Raúl and Carlos, aged five and three respectively, and an eight-year-old friend killed their twelve-year-old maid with a hunting rifle, in the course of what was supposed to be a make-believe execution. In contemporary newspaper accounts of the event (which President Salinas managed to keep out of his press coverage), the three-year-old Carlos was quoted as saying, “I killed her with one shot. I am a hero.” Whatever else the statement may be evidence of, it is not proof that Carlos fired the rifle. But the story is useful in examining the relationship between the president and the brother he called “the comrade of a hundred battles” in his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. Raúl and Carlos were not only close, they were complicitous. Did President Salinas never learn of Raúl’s multimillion-dollar deals? Did he choose to ignore the gossip about them, or was he a partner in them? If he was a partner, and if Raúl is convicted of Ruiz Massieu’s murder, can one reasonably suppose that the brothers were partners in this crime as well? Although Raúl Salinas has repeatedly stated that he had no contact for nearly twenty years with Manuel Muñoz Rocha—the vanished diputado who is accused of acting as the go-between for Salinas and the murderers—there are many witnesses to the friendship between the two men, and it also appears to be true that Muñoz Rocha first telephoned and then visited Raúl Salinas the day after the murder.

Other than this fact, the principal evidence against Raúl Salinas is the testimony of the remarkably inept PRI agent, Fernando Rodríguez Gon-zález, who actually put together the hit team. He has changed his story six times from the day he was arrested. In several of those versions Rodríguez González implicated Raúl Salinas; in another, he brought Carlos into the plot. In this version Muñoz Rocha had been paid for the murder with bags full of cash that President Salinas’s private secretary, Justo Ceja, had personally delivered. Perhaps Justo Ceja, a loyal assistant, was persuaded to deliver the money. But it seems odd that Raúl, who had hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in various bank accounts, would have wanted to rely on the presidential petty cash fund to make the payment. (The attorney general’s office, which originally leaked the Ceja story, has characteristically neglected to call Ceja in for questioning—or, for that matter, Carlos Salinas.)

Rodríguez González has also claimed that he was tortured by Jorge Stergios, who worked for Mario Ruiz Massieu—the victim’s brother, then in charge of the investigation and now charged with the cover-up—until he promised not to mention Raúl Salinas’s name. This may be true; other suspects, including Rodríguez González’s brother, bear the scars of torture. However, Rodríguez González’s credibility was seriously undermined during the week of August 19 when defense lawyers made public a video in which he is shown discussing his testimony with the special prosecutor in the Ruiz Massieu case, Pablo Chapa Bezanilla. In the tape, the prosecutor, a veteran detective chief who has been accused before of manufacturing evidence, tells Rodríguez González what the man who supposedly tortured him looks like. The prosecutor and Rodríguez González seem at ease talking to each other.

Carlos Salinas himself, forty-eight, with a new wife and a new baby, his liveliness and charm untarnished, is orchestrating his rehabilitation in the media from somewhere deep in the Irish countryside. (A dazzled reporter from the Irish Times failed to ask him whether his choice of residence had anything to do with the fact that there is no extradition treaty between Ireland and Mexico.) Popular opinion in Mexico, strongly influenced by the devastating effects of the deepest economic recession the country has known since the beginning of the post-revolutionary period, now blames the former president not only for the Colosio and Ruiz Massieu murders, but for every one of the ills currently besetting the country.

This might seem convenient to his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, who is not a particularly talented politician, and who was left to deal with the mess. But while Zedillo has been president for nearly two years now, hardly anyone talks about him because Salinas and the murders are far more interesting. One can imagine that the new president—who is by all accounts honest, hard-working, and reform-minded—might like to take advantage of the recent modest increase in his popularity to engage the other political leaders, if not the people at large, in a debate about the crucial issues in Mexico’s future: how the economy is to develop once it has recovered; what will become of the PRI if other parties are allowed to win elections; whether anything can be done about the corrupting effects of the huge drug trade throughout Mexican society. But even these issues always turn out to depend on Zedillo’s predecessor: Did PRI hardliners shoot Colosio to get back at Salinas? Is Salinas responsible for the drug trade? It seems possible that the larger issues of Mexico’s future cannot be engaged until Salinas is convicted of wrongdoing or clears his name.


The Council on Foreign Relations in a task force report, Lessons of the Mexican Peso Crisis, attempts to deal with one of the central questions of the Salinas debate: whether it was he or his successor who led the economy into its present collapse by playing poker with the exchange rate of the peso. The task force members, who represent a broad spectrum of the United States financial establishment, record their disagreement on this question. Salinas, one opinion goes, should have devalued drastically in 1993 or 1994, after it became clear that an overvalued peso was promoting excessive imports and undermining domestic savings. But others feel that Salinas’s 11 percent devaluation in March 1994 would have been sufficient “if the government had implemented stricter monetary and fiscal policies.” In any event, the argument can be made that the political imperatives of the moment—the need to get the North American Free Trade Agreement approved in the US Congress by the end of 1993, the need to face down the Zapatista rebellion from a position of strength in January of the following year and to move forward and elect a new president after the disaster of Colosio’s assassination in March of 1994—made any notion of a radical, but stable, devaluation almost impossible, because in Mexico devaluation and instability are knitted together in the public mind.

Salinas left Ernesto Zedillo to cope with the decision to devalue and with its predictable complications, despite the fact that outgoing Mexican presidents traditionally take on this burden to ease the way for their successors. But the Council on Foreign Relations task force agrees that the measure was ineptly handled by the incoming Zedillo. As a result of the various crises mentioned above, the nation’s foreign reserves had sunk from $28 billion in December 1993 to $12.5 billion when Zedillo was sworn in on December 1, 1994, and then to barely $10.5 billion by December 20. On that date, the task force reports, Zedillo

broadened the band in which the Mexican peso was allowed to float against the U.S. dollar, in effect permitting a peso devaluation of 15 percent. The market reacted by intensifying speculative attacks on Mexican currency. Hard-currency reserves fell precipitously. Two days later, the peso was allowed to float freely against the dollar, triggering a further flight of capital, which in turn precipitated a currency crisis.

In six weeks of panicked trading by the holders of Mexican short-term debt bonds, and by savers who wanted to buy dollars with the pesos in their accounts, the peso sank from 3.9 to 6.3 to the dollar, and reserves dwindled to under $4 billion. To make matters worse, the report continues,

investor confidence was shattered by contradictory signals from the Mexican government before and immediately after the devaluation, the government’s failure to propose credible measures to rein in domestic demand and tighten monetary policy, and the conspicuous absence of measures to stabilize the value of the peso.

The consequences of these various errors were dire not only for Mexico. Markets and currencies throughout Latin America tumbled and President Clinton, among others, concluded that the peso crisis could lead to a worldwide economic meltdown. He bypassed Congress and stepped in with an emergency loan package including $20 billion from the US Exchange Stabilization Fund. That loan, plus the commitment of $27.8 billion from the IMF and the Bank for International Settlements and a belated emergency program drafted by Zedillo’s economic cabinet, stabilized the peso; but the measures did nothing to ease the pain inflicted on 90 million Mexicans. Mexican GNP dropped by nearly 7 percent in 1995, and although the devaluation boosted exports, and second-quarter figures for 1996 show that the economy is beginning to grow again, the basic conditions persist that have made the Mexican economy vulnerable to three serious depressions in twenty years.

The Council task force comes closest to a historic judgment on Salinas when it several times restates its predominant conclusion: that poor governments trying to finance development through foreign investment in their financial markets should not consider portfolio investment a stable source of foreign income. As the peso crisis demonstrated exhaustively, today’s hot-money investors can deplete a country’s reserves overnight. Although Mexico received nearly $5 billion in direct foreign investment in 1993, which went to everything from automobile plants to major shares in breweries, it also issued $28 billion dollars in stocks and tesobonos, or dollar-pegged treasury bonds. It is largely the fixed investment that remains.

For the short time that the foreign speculative investment boom lasted, Mexican consumer demand—or at least certain sectors of it—also experienced euphoric growth. Restaurants and cellular phones multiplied, as did the import of dozens of brands of breakfast cereals, bottled water, and power mowers. Per capita income grew hardly at all in that same period. Even before the 1994 economic collapse, Mexico’s entry into GATT had begun to have serious negative effects on backward local industry, which could not compete with the sudden flow of cheap imports. Private domestic savings moved in “the wrong direction,” as the Council task force puts it, from 21 percent of GDP in 1989 to 11 percent in 1994, and meanwhile the gap grew wider between the extremely poor and the tiny percentage of the population who build jet landing strips at their country houses.

Under the circumstances, it is not entirely clear how so many previously unknown businessmen accumulated the capital that allowed them to bid for banks and buy out transnationals and make the Forbes list of the world’s richest men. One can ponder, for example, the fortunes and fortune of Carlos Cabal Peniche (currently on the lam, and probably somewhere in Europe), who emerged from some degree of obscurity in his home state of Tabasco to bid successfully first for a bank, Banco Unión, and then for Fresh Del Monte Produce, the worldwide distributor that provides agricultural products for Del Monte Foods. Although it is now known that Cabal Peniche was using the Banco Unión to write himself large loans, the original sources of his fortune and of his fantastically generous donations to the ruling party’s coffers in his home state were only questioned when it became apparent that Banco Unión, a small bank, was caught in a huge case of fraud. In late twentieth-century Mexico, “inexplicable enrichment” is a very useful term.

It is a term generally associated with drug wealth. Raúl Salinas is at pains to deny that association—disclaimers such as “this is not money or investments which come from or are destined to the drug trade or money laundering” recur throughout his deposition—but the doubt arises nevertheless.


Drugs—particularly cocaine—became a distinct presence on the Mexican scene during the years when Carlos Salinas was in power. Marijuana had been a significant illegal Mexican export to the United States until bootleg farmers in the US became adept at growing their own. Heroin has been produced in some parts of Mexico since the 1970s, and it still gets smuggled across the border. None of this makes much news, but cocaine is different; the amount of money cocaine generates has destabilizing and addictive effects on any society.

By the late 1980s profits from the cocaine trade had grown so enormous that the money was a burden to Colombia’s drug exporters. They had already bought most of the available prime real estate and agricultural land in Colombia, made Colombian artists among the most highly paid in the world, and regularly flew planeloads of contraband cigarettes home from Miami simply in order to sell them at cost and get the money in circulation. Feeling the weight of what the Reagan and Bush administrations termed a “war on drugs,” the Colombian drug barons searched for places outside Colombia from which to operate. Mexico, just this side of its border with the United States, has great stretches of barely populated pastureland, punctuated by the occasional landing field. The various police forces are, by the attorney general’s own admission, pervasively corrupt. The military is by tradition a lumbering institution, unleashed during internal security crises—such as the present outbreak of guerrilla activity throughout the country—but otherwise used mainly to incorporate the poorest young Mexicans into society by teaching them to read and giving them a trade. The economy is large, and at the time the traffickers were looking for a place to go, Salinas was selling off the state-owned banks to anyone—like Carlos Cabal Peniche—who was willing to pay two to three times their book value.

There is no question that the Colombians took advantage of all these conditions to transfer a major portion of their transshipping and money laundering operations to Mexico, or that their easy money contributed to the Nineties’ spending spree. But in The Mexican Shock, a series of essays on the events of the last three years, Jorge G. Castañeda goes further; he speculates that the traffickers were actually invited in by Carlos Salinas. A political analyst and columnist, and a long-time opponent of the PRI, Castañeda is the son of a former foreign minister. He grew up in politics and is often well informed. He writes:

It is not inconceivable that the regime of Carlos Salinas should have reached an agreement with Mexico’s drug traffickers at the beginning of his term, assuring three goals indispensable to both sides and of benefit both to them and (why not say it?) the country as a whole. The first goal of this speculative agreement was to encourage the drug lords to bring at least part of their money to Mexico, so as to ease the balance of payments….

The second goal would have consisted in ensuring that drug-related activities stop interfering with U.S.-Mexico relations. The profile of the trafficking…would not expose or embarrass either the Mexican government (as did, for instance, the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985) or that of the United States….

The third objective of this hypothetical tacit (or perhaps not even tacit) agreement would have been to allow the traffickers—or at least their most modern factions—to proceed with their activities if the first two objectives were met.

As signs of such a possible agreement between Salinas and the drug traffickers, Castañeda cites Salinas’s appointment of an attorney general, Enrique Alvarez del Castillo, and of a drug tsar, Javier Coello Trejo, both, he writes, “well known to the drug lords.” And as possible evidence of the breakdown of that agreement—partly the result of US pressure and NAFTA negotiations—he points to a famous incident in the state of Veracruz in 1991, in which a US customs plane filmed a shootout between Mexican troops, drug traffickers, and members of the much-feared Judiciales, or crime-investigating police, which are under the control of the attorney general’s office.

Violence involving drugs was no longer simply a matter of settling internal accounts. The state itself came under attack, and even the Church was affected in May 1993, when Juan Jesús Cardinal Posadas was gunned down at the entrance to the Guadalajara city airport. According to the official version, his death was the accidental byproduct of a shootout between rival drug lords. This version has never found many takers, and Castañeda seems to agree with the widespread belief that the Cardinal was, in fact, the intended target of the hit. As one of those who find it difficult to believe that Salinas plotted to murder his political associates, he wonders if the Cardinal’s assassination, along with those of Colosio and Ruiz Massieu, were the traffickers’ way of conveying their anger to the Salinas administration about an agreement that had broken down and of issuing “warnings that the government, for various reasons, chose not to heed.”


The other main path of speculation that does not point to Carlos Salinas as responsible for the Colosio and Ruiz Massieu murders leads to the Institutional Revolutionary Party itself. In the days when Carlos Salinas was popular with the press, it was an article of faith that he and his team of young, cocksure technocrats were despised by the traditional leadership of the PRI. It was said that Salinas, always with an eye to his possible reelection in the year 2000, was gradually abandoning the party structure and setting up his own pre-party organization through Solidaridad, the social works program headed by Luis Donaldo Colosio, whom Salinas then designated as his presidential successor. It was also said that some PRI leaders were so enraged by Salinas’s decision to let opposition parties take over governorships in three states that they arranged for Colosio’s murder. (As head of the PRI, Colosio had been in charge of smoothing the anger of party officials over the opposition’s gubernatorial victory in Baja California, the state in which he was later killed.)

There is, of course, no more evidence for these theories than for Castañeda’s or any of the others, but even the speculation points to the fact that the PRI is no longer what it was. In the last ten years it has suffered enormous internal divisions (the largest of which produced the presidential candidacy of Salinas’s arch-rival, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, in 1988). It has lost power in four states; it has seen its candidate and its secretary general murdered; it has lost its umbilical link to the presidency; and thanks to a series of reforms in the electoral code it will not long have such easy access to the kind of money that used to purchase guaranteed victories in previous elections.

In Bordering on Chaos, Andres Oppenheimer, a veteran Latin American correspondent for the Miami Herald, reports in intricate detail on how the old PRI used to work, how much money it needs, and how, despite internal hatreds, Salinas looked after the party’s interests.

Here, for example, is Oppenheim-er’s account of a famous dinner in February 1993, in which Carlos Salinas determined to enrich the PRI’s coffers. The dinner, attended by Salinas, Genaro Borrego, president of the PRI, and the thirty richest men in Mexico, takes place at the home of the international banker Antonio Ortiz Mena. During the meal, the millionaires josh with the PRI’s Genaro Borrego:

“Well, how much are we supposed to collect?”

Mucho” (“a lot”), Borrego responded, smiling.

“But how much?” the business tycoon insisted.

Muchísimo” (“a whole lot”), Borrego responded, drawing laughter from around the table.

An hour later, after pep talks by Borrego, Ortiz Mena, and Salinas himself, the president’s great friend, the banker Roberto Hernández, gets the donations going.

“Mr. President, I commit myself to making my best effort to collect twenty-five million,” Hernández said.

There was an awkward silence in the room.

“Mexican pesos or dollars?” one of the billionaire guests asked.

“Dollars,” responded Hernández and Borrego, almost in chorus.

Despite some initial balking, by the end of the evening the other guests had agreed to pay up in kind. Oppenheimer could have paid more attention to the contradictions he has unearthed during his muckraking, for they are central to any judgment about Salinas. This is what he observes in passing about that dinner:

The PRI needed the money badly, and not just because it wanted to avoid an embarrassment during the electoral race over the massive financial help it had long received from the government. After decades of functioning like a de facto government agency that got its money directly from the Finance ministry, the PRI was discovering that the flow of government funds was running dry. A few months earlier, Finance Secretary Pedro Aspe had sent a memo to party president Borrego informing him that the central government would no longer finance the party’s needs.

So this was Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s contribution to the modernization of his country’s politics: to make the party financially independent of the government, and then to extract money from the men who multiplied their wealth through cozy deals with that same government, so that the PRI’s candidates could campaign with more funds than ever.


Conditions in Mexico at present seem so awful that it is hard to keep in mind how many changes for the better there have been in Mexican public life. It is the case, for example, that during the Salinas years the press was allowed to do its work with greater freedom than ever before, and that, as a result, newspaper editors and reporters can now begin to see themselves as something other than either paid-off hacks or righteous adversaries. It is also true that whereas in 1988 there was only one party that mattered—the PRI—there are now two hardworking opposition parties attempting to organize the left- and right-of-center vote. In 1989, only two million people paid income tax. Halfway into the Salinas administration, three million did so.

Taxpayers may see themselves as passive victims of a state, but they tend to respond differently from non-taxpayers; they quarrel, and protest, and demand their rights, and so Mexicans have done, increasingly, over the last few years. A variety of civic organizations represent the newly active citizens—human rights watchgroups, ecology lobbies, election-monitoring associations, consumer defense groups. Alianza Cívica, a citizens’ rights group that monitored the 1994 elections, has now set up a program called “Adopt an Official” to monitor corruption among public servants. It is to a large extent to these new activists—and to the international audience on whose stage he hoped to become a star—that Salinas addressed many of his showier reforms.

Castañeda, and Oppenheimer particularly, do their best to take the positive changes into account, but the overall balance of both authors is pessimistic: there are, they find, no political forces to guarantee that even the best reforms do not go awry. Legislative and administrative reforms have made it much easier for the opposition to control the PRI’s spending, for example, but the obvious and urgent concern is whether the PRI is turning to the drug trade as an alternate source of funds. Castañeda writes:

The string of assassinations under Carlos Salinas suggests that the stagnation of Mexican living standards beginning in 1981…combined with the collapse of traditional ways of settling disputes among the elites had finally brought about the breakdown of the system….

For various reasons, [Salinas’s] government dismantled or discarded many of the traditional means to settle disputes among elites. Corruption did not abate, of course; it was merely rechanneled toward a few privileged beneficiaries. In PRI jargon, it stopped splashing the way it did before. The distribution of privileges, posts, sinecures, jobs, seats in the Chamber of Deputies, governorships, scholarships, and embassy posts, and all the Mexican system’s scaffolding of cooptation, corruption, and consolation started shrinking. There are fewer state-owned companies, and those still there are handed over to groups that are ever more closed. Salinas set about destroying the old system, but the chaos of the last three years is evidence of how little there is to replace it. Violence, so long dormant under the old authoritarianism, is on the rise. Murder is the new way in which disputes get settled among the various factions in power, but it is also the increasingly frequent tool of robbers and kidnappers. And violence is once again in vogue among certain sectors of the left. Last month a new guerilla organization, the People’s Revolutionary Army, made its debut—an agglomeration of various militant groups left over from the 1970s whose name and rhetoric might seem drearily familiar to everyone except the enraged peasants who suffered most under the Salinas regime.

Salinas, Castañeda writes, badly distorted the economy by carrying out his reforms in a way that pleased international bankers but was unsuited to the needs of a weak and poor nation; and the painful difference between Mexico’s outward growth signs in the last decade and the life of poverty led by 45 million Mexicans—half the population—would seem to support his claim. Unfortunately, no one has yet come up with a model of development suitable to a poor country with a weak industrial base and scarce agricultural potential, whose population has doubled in the last thirty years, and which is situated next to the world’s most powerful economy and most voracious market for illegal drugs. Nor, despite the progress made, do the scaffoldings of a truly representative democracy with which to replace the current system spring up overnight, or even in the six years a Mexican presidency lasts. It may be unrealistic to expect that Ernesto Zedillo will fare better than his talented and deeply flawed predecessor in these respects. But at least one can hope that he will not do worse.

September 5, 1996

This Issue

October 3, 1996