MEXICO CITY -- For 15 years, Francisca Zetina Chavez was the most powerful witch in her neighborhood. She claimed numerous political contacts, both alive and dead, and when clients came to her for 200-peso "cleansings," she told them that it was her spiritual guide, John F. Kennedy, who would enter their bodies.
Thanks to the government, she is now famous throughout Mexico.
Known as La Paca, the 55-year-old mystic has been jailed as a central character in a scandal that has transfixed the nation and made a mockery of its criminal justice system, with disclosures of planted corpses, fugitive prosecutors and a tangled relationship between witch and state.
In the latest of a series of revelations, former Attorney General Antonio Lozano Gracia has said he personally informed President Ernesto Zedillo about a secret October payment to La Paca for 1 million pesos, or $132,873. Zedillo's spokesman denied that the president was informed of the payment.
The transaction is potentially explosive. It came shortly after La Paca, and what authorities have called her "spiritual group," dug up the remains of her son-in-law's father, ferried them through the capital in an old Dodge pickup, then buried them on a ranch owned by the brother of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Raul Salinas de Gortari, who once claimed La Paca as his spiritual adviser, is in prison, charged with plotting the 1994 assassination of a top ruling party official. The skeleton-planting scheme appears to have been an attempt either to frame Raul Salinas for another murder or to torpedo the investigation into one of Mexico's most sensational murders ever.
"History in Latin America has always been stranger than fiction, but this is going to put us all out of business," says Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's leading novelist. "I mean, if you made up a character like La Paca and put her in a novel, they'd laugh you out of town."
Fuentes said the case would be comical if it were not such a serious threat to Mexican justice: "We've already suffered so many blows in the last few years, we're almost numbed by so many pieces of bad luck and bad news. But this one is so excessive, so beyond the pale, it should awaken the indignation of Mexican society."
The revelations come at a time when Mexicans have all but given up hope of learning the perpetrators of three murders that have shaken the political system.
On May 24, 1993, Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was shot dead at the Guadalajara airport. On March 24, 1994, presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana. And on Sept. 28, 1994, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary-general of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was gunned down in Mexico City.
The Ruiz Massieu case, a mess from the start, has seemed to break down entirely with the latest revelations. Pablo Chapa Bezanilla, the special prosecutor once responsible for investigating all three murders, has suddenly disappeared. Prosecutors said he is wanted for questioning to determine why he approved the possibly illegal payment to La Paca.
Was Chapa duped by La Paca and her enterprising band of disciples? Or were they all in it together -- Chapa to save his crumbling investigation and La Paca to collect reward money? Could Raul Salinas, who is charged with plotting Ruiz Massieu's murder, have orchestrated the whole thing from prison, as La Paca alleged in her statements to investigators?
Each morning, radio stations lead their reports with such announcements as, "And now, another chapter in our national soap opera." Among the charges against La Paca is "violation of the laws of inhumation and exhumation." Her co-defendants, all denied bail because of "the social impact of the case," include her sister, daughter and Maria Bernal, the Spanish former lover of Raul Salinas.
In their mug shots, La Paca's relatives are seen shaping their fingers into inverted triangles, protective karmic symbols used by spiritualists to ward off negative energy.
"It's a little sad, because it's turned into a kind of theater, but it's what happened," says a spokesman for the Mexico City attorney general's office. "It's a shame, but we hope that things will be clarified when Chapa turns up."
This week, Mexico City prosecutor Jose Antonio Gonzalez Fernandez tried gamely to explain what has gone so wrong since the skeleton surfaced in October. Then, authorities hinted strongly that the skeleton would prove to be former congressman Manuel Munoz Rocha.
Munoz Rocha has been missing since Sept. 29, 1994, the day after the assassination of Ruiz Massieu. Authorities believe that Munoz Rocha conspired with Raul Salinas to murder Ruiz Massieu, who was also Salinas' former brother-in-law.