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Zedillo Pledges An End to Official 'Impunity' in Mexico

By Tod Robberson
The Washington Post
TETLA, Mexico

Two days after jailing his predecessor's brother, President Ernesto Zedillo issued a stern warning Thursday that he is "putting an end to impunity" and will "apply the strict letter of the law" to all Mexicans, regardless of social or political standing.

In his first on-the-record interview since an economic and political crisis gripped Mexico nine weeks ago, Zedillo defended his decision to order the arrest of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari's brother, Raul, and said he will proceed "to the highest levels" with investigations into the assassinations of two senior political leaders in the past year.

Zedillo's tough language appeared designed to silence critics in the United States who have charged that he has demonstrated weak leadership during a time of upheaval. Domestically, his populist rhetoric calling public officials to account - a theme also invoked by Carlos Salinas throughout his own administration - appears to have struck a nerve in a country where corruption has flourished over nearly 66 years of unbroken rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Zedillo, on a speaking tour here in the central state of Tlaxcala, was described by aides as appearing revitalized and confident after a new poll showed that voters overwhelmingly approve of his decision to jail Raul Salinas in connection with the Sept. 28 assassination of a top PRI official.

Raul Salinas is accused of providing financial and logistical support to conspirators in the killing of PRI secretary general Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. The chief investigator in the case alleged Wednesday that both Carlos and Raul Salinas may have stood to gain politically or financially from the slaying, but the attorney general's office said no specific motive has been found.

Zedillo appeared to have been bolstered by the arrest after weeks of criticism at home and abroad for his Dec. 20 decision to devalue the Mexican currency. Zedillo has been accused of reacting too slowly to combat the effects of the devaluation, which led to a crash of the Mexico City stock market, a more than 40 percent drop in the dollar-buying power of the peso and steep increases in nationwide unemployment and inflation.

The flight of billions of dollars in foreign investment from Mexico prompted the Clinton administration to arrange a controversial $20 billion package of loan guarantees in hopes of restoring investor confidence in Mexico. So far, however, the peso and the Mexican stock market remain severely depressed.

Salinas, breaking a longstanding tradition holding that former officials remain silent on the policies of their successors, said the peso crisis was provoked by "the errors of December," clearly referring to Zedillo's Dec. 20 devaluation. Responding, Zedillo said he is slowly taking control of the economic situation he inherited on taking office Dec. 1, implying that whatever errors were committed occurred on Salinas's watch. "It does nobody any good to say the errors occurred in December or any other month," he declared.

Close associates of Zedillo said he appealed directly to Salinas as far back as October to devalue the peso before leaving office because of pressures the overvalued currency was placing on Mexican financial markets. Salinas refused, forcing Zedillo to devalue less than three weeks after his inauguration, they said.

Despite taking the highly unpopular monetary action, a national poll published by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma Thursday placed Zedillo's approval rating at 54 percent, while 83 percent of respondents gave a vote of no confidence for Salinas, suggesting the public holds him responsible for the crisis.

In the interview, Zedillo denied a recently published report that he plans to abandon a national wage-price pact between labor and business as a means of holding down inflation and restricting economic growth. He said he expects a new national pact to be signed, possibly as early as next week, that will include adjustments for Mexico's current economic reality. Annualized inflation is running at 40 percent to 60 percent here, while consumer interest rates exceed 80 percent.

At the same time, he appeared to exclude the prospect of ending the crisis this year, explaining that "1995 will be a year of adjustment" economically. He said interest rates will not come down until Mexican financial markets stabilize, which he estimated would take another eight to 15 weeks.