Assassination in Mexico

March 25, 1994

The murder of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana, within sight of the U.S. border, is a cruel blow at Mexico's stability and the hope of prosperity for its people. Or so the crime was meant to be. In all likelihood, Mexico's political order and progress toward democracy will proceed apace, along with its economic integration in North America.

With the hit men in custody, Mexican police should soon be able to say why the crime was committed and for whom. Until this information is made public with credibility, any conjecture is fantasy. There are too many plausibilities.

Mr. Colosio was a vigorous young politician who tried to make the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) more democratic at the grass roots, if only to insure its survival in power. Then he was put in charge of spreading modern infrastructure (roads and sewers and schools and electrification) to the benighted countryside. As presidential candidate of PRI, personally chosen outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, he was committed to the reforms designed to produce a fair election.

PRI has announced that it will not be rushed into panicky selection of a replacement candidate for the Aug. 21 election. Presumably, Mr. Salinas will make the choice in consultation with himself alone, as is tradition. Many Mexicans will think the strongest candidate is Manuel Camacho Solis, the former mayor of Mexico City who is currently engaged in negotiating a settlement with rebels and landowners in the southern state of Chiapas.

Mr. Camacho had openly sought the presidential designation and criticized the choice of Mr. Colosio. This cannot have endeared him to the party. After the uprising by Indians in Chiapas put him in the spotlight, he flirted with the idea of running an independent candidacy. Fortunately for Mexico's peace of mind, Mr. Camacho took himself out of the running the day before Mr. Colosio was murdered.

Mr. Salinas' great achievement in opening up Mexico's economy culminated in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada. This offers more hope of lifting the lives of ordinary Mexicans than the national heritage of socialism and xenophobia ever could. But it requires a similar opening of Mexico's stultified political system as well.

Nobody understands this better than Mr. Salinas. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada is visiting Mexico this week. NAFTA is real and promising for both countries, which previously had nothing in common except borders with the United States.

Mexico's drive for modernity and democracy is broadly based. It will survive the assassination of one man, even if that man was almost certainly the next president.

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