The recent string of political assassinations in Mexico makes for a true-crime story of epic scope, a modern classic in the Conspiracy genre. The convoluted plot line revolves around the cozy links between Mexico's powerful drug cartels and the ruling government's corrupt "narcopoliticians": During the presidency of Harvard-educated Carlos Salinas de Gortari, drug lords enriched venal officials at the highest levels of government, in return for their protection of the underground drug economy; when reform-minded politicians threatened to put an end to the graft, narcopols in the ruling party had them bumped off; finally, the inevitable coverups and denials began.
Though in America the Mexican assassinations aren't the stuff of ongoing headlines, south of the border the press regales a delighted and mortified public with new revelations and rumors each week. As a service to our paranoia-starved readers, 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time has waded through the press accounts, the rumors, the official claims. In the compressive spirit of "Cliffs Notes," we now present our English-language synopsis and analysis of this epic Latin-American tragicomedy in the making.
A note to serious conspiracy students: These notes are not a substitute for the text itself or for classroom discussion of the text. We do not advise that students use these notes strictly for the purposes of cramming the night before an examination.
The Catholic cardinal assassinated by drug traffickers in Guadalajara.
Luis Donaldo Colosio
The presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who was assassinated during a rally in Tijuana.
Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu
The PRI's secretary general who was assassinated while leaving a PRI breakfast meeting in Mexico City. He was slated to be incoming President Zedillo's "strongman" in charge of internal political affairs and the police.
Benjamin and Javier Arellano Felix
Kingpins of Baja's top drug trafficking syndicate, the Arellano brothers have been implicated in the assassination of the cardinal.
Edgar Nicolas Mariscal ("El Negro")
One of the alleged gunmen in the assassination of the cardinal. El Negro was arrested only last month--packing an Uzi and fake government credentials.
Mario Aburto Martinez
The man initially charged by authorities as the lone-nut gunman who killed Colosio. Though Aburto confessed to the crime, Tijuana police nabbed another probable gunman.
Jorge Antonio Sanchez
That probable second gunman. Though he swore he had been nowhere near Colosio, unfortunately for Sanchez, his clothes were spattered with Colosio's blood, and he tested positive for powder burns. Fortunately for Sanchez, he is also an agent of CISEN, Mexico's equivalent of the CIA, and was immediately set free by the federal authorities.
Othon Cortes Vasquez
Another alleged second gunman in the Colosio assassination (according to prosecutors). He was a PRI driver and police informer.
Manuel Murloz Rocha
The PRI congressman named by the captured assassin of Ruiz as a facilitator behind the killing. After taking refuge in the home of President Salinas's brother, Raul Salinez, Murloz vanished without a trace, Jimmy Hoffa-like.
Carlos Hank Gonzalez
The Agriculture minister, alleged to be tight with the drug cartelsdescribed as "the biggest money launderer in Mexico." Hank (working with other officials close to President Salinas) is thought by many to be the mastermind behind the Colosio assassination.
Jorge Hank Rhon
Hank Gonzalez's son, a money launderer in his own right. Two Aeromexico flight attendants claim to have seen Hank Rhon seated in the first class section beside the Arellano brothers during their flight from the scene of the cardinal's assassination.
Juan Garcia Abrego
The boss of Grupo del Gulfo, Mexico's largest drug cartel, and the suspected underworld figure behind the Ruiz Massieu assassination.
Carlos Salinas de Gortari
During his term of Mexico's president, Salinas appointed assorted corrupt "narcopoliticians" to positions of authority. Blamed by just about everyone for his country's collapsing economy and rampant corruption, the former Mexican president fought back last spring by embarking on a short-lived hunger strike. Starvation failing to rehabilitate his image, he subsequently exiled himself to Canada, where Salinas sightings have outpaced appearances by dead Elvis.
Raul Salinas de Gortari
Brother of the ex-president. Now in custody of the authorities, Raul Salinas stands accused of having masterminded the Ruiz Massieu assassination, on behalf of the Hanks and drug lords.
Mario Ruiz Massieu
Brother of the slain PRI secretary general. As attorney general Mario Ruiz Massieu led the probe into his brother's death, and accused high-ranking PRI members of a coverup. But then after suddenly resigning Massieu flees for Spain, is arrested in New Jersey and is accused himself of covering up Raul Salinas's role in plotting his brother's assassination.
Juan Pablo de Tavira
Current Mexican President Zedillo's short-lived federal police chief, who was poisoned in his sleep (possibly by his chief bodyguard) hours before a meeting to plan the purge of police commanders connected to the drug cartels. He is currently in an irreversible coma.
The police chief of Tijuana. Federico Benitez defied PRI honchos who advised him not to provide extra security at at the Colosio rally. Benitez's police arrested the suspected second gunman, Jorge Antonio Sanchez. Benitez was himself assassinated a few weeks later, just as he was beginning to investigate Colosio's PRI security team.
On May 24, 1993 a band of drug traffickers assassinates Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo at the Guadalajara airport. Opening the doors of the clergyman's car, the hit men ventilate Cardinal Posadas with automatic weapons at point-blank range. Eventually, an alleged gunman will be arrested, and the first official government explanation will surface: The cardinal--who was dressed in religious vestments--was "mistaken" for a rival drug kingpin, one "El Chapo" (Shorty). Skeptics, however, claim that agents of the federal judicial police and high-ranking Cabinet officials were also involved.
The initial official explanation was ludicrous; Posadas didn't resemble El Chapo in the least, and the cardinal's gown featured a large cross--hardly the preferred tailoring of Latin-American drug traffickers. More likely, Posadas was murdered by a drug cartel hit squad attempting to send a signal to would-be reformers in the Mexican government. According to the story in Guadalajara, the cardinal "had evidence of the government's relationship with the drug trade and was getting ready to give the information to the head of the church." According to Andrew Reding, director of the North America Project of the World Policy Institute, "Posadas was the only major authority figure in Guadalajara not owned by the narcotics traffickers. The drug barons killed him to send a message to the government. Posadas was an outspoken critic of drugs and guns."
The evidence of government complicity in the killing? Shortly after the assassination, warrants were issued for the arrest of Benjamin and Javier Arellano Felix, kingpins of the major drug trafficking syndicate in Baja California. More than two years later, however, the brothers Arellano have yet to be arrested. The brothers are belived to have led the hit squad, with the help of Federal judicial police, who covered their escape from the Guadalajara airport: Upon boarding Aeromexico flight 110 to Tijuana, which had been delayed for more than 20 minutes for their convenience, the brothers produced bogus police credentials. And in Tijuana they walked off the plane without police interference. (In September 1995, another suspect was arrested, Edgar Nicolas Mariscal, a drug trafficker known as "El Negro." When the authorities made the arrest, El Negro was packing an Uzi submachine gun and phoney government credentials.)
According to the Los Angeles Times, Mexican officials believe that the Arellano brothers "answer to a silent boss who is more worldly than they are and who has his own banker and legitimate businesses." The Times's sources "declined to reveal the identity of the reputed leader," circumstantial evidence points to Carlos Hank Gonzalez, the billionaire businessman and reputed money launderer who was named tourism secretary and eventually agriculture secretary under President Salinas. A former prosecutor of the Mexican attorney general has described Carlos Hank as "the primary intermediary between the multinational drug trafficking enterprises and the Mexican political system."
According to two Aeromexico flight attendants, the younger of Carlos Hank's two sons was seated beside the brothers Arellanos in the first class section of the escape flight from Guadalajara.
On March 23, 1994 at a campaign rally in Tijuana, PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio is killed by shots in the head and abdomen. The first official explanation has it that the gunman, Mario Aburto Martinez, is a deranged loner craving notoriety. Official explanation number two--which precipitates a whirlwind succession of procesutors and investigators--is that there was indeed a plot behind the killing. Official explanation number three--taken up as public confidence in the government plummeted--takes the case back to square one: there was no plot, after all, and therefore no call for widespread public instability.
Despite the official position, a preponderance evidence does indeed point to a conspiracy: Colosio's autopsy would show that he had been shot twice and that bullets had entered opposite sides of his body. Videotapes of the shooting show that Colosio did not turn after the first shot, which suggests a second gunman.
Indeed, Tijuana municipal police arrested a second man leaving the rally with blood his clothing. That suspect, Jorge Antonio Sanchez, tested positive for powder burns, and despite his claim that he was nowhere near Colosio, videos confirm that he was in fact close at hand. Oddly, Sanchez was immediately released after the Tijuana police turned him over to the federal authorities. Why? The weekly newsmagazine Proceso reported that Sanchez is an agent of the Center of Investigations and National Security (CISEN), Mexico's equivalent of the CIA. Did Sanchez receive a "Get Out of Jail Free" card because his arrest drew attention to an agency whose operations are overseen by the office of the presidency?
Sanchez might have eluded arrest in the first place had not Tijuana's chief of police, Federico Benitez, defied PRI operatives who advised him to let them handle security at the rally. Benitez ignored the PRI warnings and posted his men nearby; it was one of Benitez's officers who collared Sanchez. In the aftermath of the assassination, Benitez began to investigate Colosio's PRI security team, itself. He discovered that the team leader, Jose Rodolfo Rivapalacio, a former state police commander, had a sordid record that included accusations of torture and the attempted murder of his wife. But in April 1994, one month after the Colosio slaying, Benitez was assassinated on the streets of Tijuana in a well-planned ambush. His files on Rivapalacio vanished without a trace from police headquarters.
Why would members of Colosio's own party put out a contract on their popular presidential candidate? (Colosio was also President Salinas's hand-picked successor.)
Note that at the time of his assassination, Colosio had given the narco-pols entrenched in the PRI (and their drug cartel patrons) cause for concern. He refused to meet with corrupt former governors, and he declined an invitation to meet with a relative of drug kingpin Juan Garci Abrego. Was Colosio, in breaking with the precedents of previous presidential candidates, planning to bust the profitable PRI-drug trust?
In the aftermath of the Colosio assassination, former drug-enforcement czar Eduardo Valle fled to the United States and elaborated on this PRI-Cartel conspiracy theory: Per Valle, the Colosio assassination was engineered by high-ranking members of Salinas's cabinet and their mob associates. (Valle specifically fingers Transportation Minister Emilio Gamboa, and others have accused Carlos Hank Gonzalez of involvement.) Valle, known as "El Buho" (The Owl), claims that the Colosio hit was carried out by members of the Grupo del Gulfo cocaine cartel, with the complicty of the slain candidate's PRI security team. Valle has documented a number of insidious links between Transportation Minister Gamboa and the Grupo del Gulfo and Baja drug cartels. Valle estimates that more than half of Mexico's police chiefs and attorney generals receive illegal payoffs from the drug cartels. If this alliance isn't broken up, Valle warns, the assassinations will continue.
Indeed, the hits keep coming. On September 28, 1994 Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the PRI's secretary general and majority leader-elect of the Chamber of Deputies, is assassinated in Mexico City while leaving a PRI breakfast meeting. The assassin is nabbed after his Uzi jams, and he quickly confesses: He was hired, he says, by an aide to Manuel Murloz Rocha, a PRI congressman and chairman of a committee under the Chamber of Deputies. Murloz Rocha has interesting connections: Not only does he hail from Tamaulipas, the eastern border state that is home of the Grupo del Gulfo, he had previously chaired a congressional committee closely associated with Carlos Hank's Ministry of Agriculture. Unfortunately, Murloz Rocha doesn't get a chance to explain himself; after taking refuge in the home of Raul Salinas, the president's brother, he disappears off the face of the earth, Jimmy Hoffa-style.
President Salinas raises eyebrows by appointing Mario Ruiz Massieu, the brother of the murdered secretary general, as the special prosecutor in charge of the official investigation. Ruiz zeroes in on Murloz Rocha, and accuses the elite ranks of the PRI of mounting a coverup. Dramatically, Ruiz Massieu resigns from his post as special prosecutor.
Salinas's successor, President Zedillo, feels the need to appoint a member of the opposition party to investigate the assassinations. That attorney general reopens all three major cases, and then, in a shocking move, arrests Raul Salinas, brother of the ex-president. Raul is accused of ordering and financing the assassination of Ruiz Massieu.
The drama takes a Shakespearean turn when In March 1995, U.S. officials arrest Mario Ruiz Massieu in Newark, New Jersey, for carrying more than $40,000 in undeclared cash. Ruiz Massieu, fleeing Mexico for Madrid, Spain, is charged by Mexican officials with obstructing the probe of his own brother's murder, collecting bribes from drug traffickers. The implication is that Ruiz Massieu (the living one) had covered up not only the role of drug cartels in the murder of his brother (the dead one), but also the connection of Raul Salinas (and therefore that of Raul's brother, the former president) to the murders. Ruiz Massieu is said to have more than $9 million in unaccounted for funds stashed away in Texas bank accounts.
So what was the motive in the slaying of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu? Raul Salinas--accused of masterminding the killing--was involved in a dispute with Ruiz Massieu that might possibly have involved the ubiquitous Carlos Hank: When he was governor of the state of Guerrero, Ruiz Massieu had thwarted Raul Salinas's attempts to secure government contracts with companies connected to the Hank family. Did Raul Salinas and Hank fear further trouble from Ruiz Massieu, who was about to become majority leader of the Chamber of Deputies?
Other motives have been suggested, as well: The Ruiz killing may have been a warning to incoming President Zedillo and his backers (which included dirty money gadabout Carlos Hank) from the drug cartels, to the effect of, "Don't get any dumb ideas about cracking down on your partners, the cartels." Another theory has it that the Ruiz hit was actually payback for the Colosio hit--a vendetta aimed at noneother than Carlos Hank for his suspected role in the Colosio murder. So, take your pick: Carlos Hank is either the perpetrator or the victim--or, perhaps, given the confused world of Mexican drug politics, both.
Mario Ruiz Massieu remains in U.S. custody; a federal judge recently denied the latest attempts by the Mexican government to extradite its former attorney general. Raul Salinas is locked up in a Mexican jail, awaiting trial. And his beleaguered brother, Carlos Salinas, the former golden boy-turned-laughing stock of Mexican politics, is now hiding out in Canada.
The Mexican investigations continue--and so do the rumors, which spread and mutate faster than a philovirus. The skullduggery also continues. Recently, President Zedillo's new federal police chief, Juan Pablo de Tavira, was poisoned in his sleep, shortly before he was to begin a massive cleanup that would have expunged police commanders linked to the drug cartels. The message couldn't be clearer to other would-be reformers. Juan Pablo de Tavira remains paralyzed and unable to speak.
There's little chance that Mexican officials will ever get to the bottom of the problem, if only because they are the problem. The underground drug trade is an integral part of Mexico's above-ground economy. During the Salinas administration, economic expedience saw to it that profits from the drug trade were rechanneled into legitimate businesses. Salinas cronies, bent on privatizing the Mexican economy, used these illicit proceeds to fund Mexico's economic development, earning themselves a fortune in kickbacks from their silent partners, the drug cartels. As Latin American policy analyst Christopher Whalen (no relation to the co-author of 60GCAT) notes, "An alliance of convenience has been forged between drug traffickers and technocrats, with the additional upshot that Mexico's financial institutions would lose a great deal if money laundering were halted."
So Salinas's "Mexican Miracle" continues, fueled by cocaine profits, enforced by hit squads, protected by backroom bureaucrats.