Ammunition for debate
Letta Tayler | Mexico City | June 13
The conclusion that an ambush on the Oaxaca governor was faked illustrates Mexico’s uphill struggle.
Even to crime-jaded Mexicans, the ambush seemed almost too brazen to be real.
As Oaxaca Gov. José Murat Casab drove along a busy street in his state capital one March morning, a half-dozen men wielding Kalashnikovs allegedly opened fire on him from a passing truck. Murat, who emerged from the incident with cuts to his head, immediately declared the attack an assassination attempt by political foes or even federal officials.
But last week, Mexico’s attorney general concluded the ambush had been faked, fueling allegations by opposition politicians the mercurial Murat may have staged it to gain sympathy for his party’s candidate in Oaxaca’s hotly contested gubernatorial election in August. Murat labeled the conclusion a “biased and grotesque” smear by rival parties, including that of President Vicente Fox. “The only missing evidence [proving he was attacked] is my own cadaver,” he declared Friday, adding he filed a criminal lawsuit against the attorney general charging him with abuse of power and called for his impeachment.
Investigations are continuing, and it is still uncertain whether Murat will face charges. But whatever the truth – most observers doubt it’ll be found – the episode is an embarrassing reminder of Fox’s uphill battle to make good on his 2000 election pledge to remove endemic corruption from Mexico.
Reminder of scandals past
“This scandal and others in recent months reinforce the fact we’ve been a terribly corrupt country and may well be for a long time,” said Federico Estévez, a Mexico City-based political scientist.
Expectations soared for political maturity in Mexico, a major U.S. ally and trade partner, when Fox’s election ended seven decades of iron-fisted, often corrupt rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, of which Murat is a prominent member. Fox said it would be unrealistic to expect a swift end to business as usual. “Political corruption will be terminated in Mexico, but that will necessarily provoke some turbulence,” he told reporters recently.
In the past few months, corruption-related turbulence has hit all three major political parties. In the central state of Morelos, lawmakers are trying to launch impeachment proceedings against Gov. Sergio Estrada, a member of Fox’s National Action Party (PAN), for alleged ties to drug traffickers. The same allegations already toppled the state police chief and forced suspension of the 553-member police force in April. Since then, however, half the police have been quietly returned to duty.
Federal Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha recently reopened a probe into the Estrada case after opposition lawmakers accused him of going soft on PAN members.
In Mexico City, Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party is still reeling from the appearance in February of videos showing city officials accepting bribes from a construction magnate.
In accusations reminiscent of Murat’s, López Obrador insists Fox’s government set up the sting to scuttle his status as a front-runner in the 2006 presidential race. The colorful López Obrador also insinuated U.S. officials were involved in the sting, a charge Washington denies.
Alleged partisan witch-hunt
Many political observers here dismiss López Obrador’s accusations. But they say the fact that Macedo is investigating López Obrador for two other alleged scandals with remarkable zeal helps convince the mayor’s supporters that he’s the victim of a partisan witch-hunt.
Murat insisted would-be assassins sprayed his windshield with so many bullets it nearly collapsed as he drove to a posh hotel in the city of Oaxaca, the capital of Oaxaca state.
But in concluding a preliminary investigation, deputy federal attorney general Gilberto Higuera declared last week “there is not one fact that suggests the [Murat] vehicle was the target of an attack.”
Among an array of inconsistencies, Higuera said, most shots fired during the alleged ambush – including all those hitting Murat’s sport utility vehicle – came from inside the governor’s car. He said the few shots fired from outside came from pistols belonging to the governor’s bodyguards, including one whom Murat has since promoted to state police chief.
Investigators found evidence of AK-47 gunfire, but some came from inside the car and none from the area where a state investigation placed the alleged assassins, Higuera said.
Higuera’s report failed to find a cause of death for Rufino Zárate, a policeman fatally injured during the alleged ambush. Murat said Zárate was traveling with him and was shot by his attackers. The state investigation concluded Zárate fell to his death from the back of a truck heading to the crime scene. Zárate’s family told Mexican media that the police officer appeared to have been badly beaten when they saw him shortly after the alleged ambush at a Oaxaca hospital, where he was in a coma.
For all the hoopla, many political analysts believe dirty dealings may have decreased under Fox. “What’s different is that the scandals are finally being investigated and publicly debated,” said Sergio Sarmiento, a respected political columnist. “This is a healthy, democratic process.”