Conspiracy Theories Follow Colosio Assassination


Mexicans call it simply "the Colosio case," the tangled web of mysteries and intrigue surrounding the 1994 assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the ruling party's presidential candidate.

One man has been convicted as Colosio's assassin, but that has not laid persistent conspiracy theories to rest. Investigators and special prosecutors assigned to probe the political killing seem to come and go without effect. And the bodies of those who brush against the case keep stacking up. The recent brutal murder of a federal prosecutor-the first official who interrogated Colosio's convicted assassin-brought the grim tally to 10.

El Caso Colosio is Mexico's equivalent of the John F. Kennedy assassination. But even die-hard JFK conspiracy theorists might be overwhelmed by the twists and turns of this political slaying. Colosio, 44, was the presidential candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, and as such he was almost assured of becoming Mexico's next leader.

But on March 23, 1994, a bullet to the head and another to the abdomen ended Colosio's life while he was campaigning in Tijuana. Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Colosio's campaign manager, succeeded him, and the new PRI candidate went on to win the presidency six months later. Now it rests with the Zedillo government to solve the Colosio mystery. So far, it has failed.

Federal prosecutors assert that Colosio was the victim of a plot, yet they have won a conviction against only one man, Mario Aburto Martinez, a despondent factory worker who confessed to shooting the candidate in the head and has been sentenced to 45 years in prison. In the hectic hours after Colosio was assassinated, Jesus Romero Magana played a key role as the first federal prosecutor to interrogate Aburto.

Romero, 45, who lived in Tijuana, was recently shot outside his front door. Police suspect Romero may have known his assailants.

The grisly slaying brought to mind the death of Jose Arturo Ochoa, who ran the federal attorney general's office in Baja California state and was part of that first interrogation team as well. On April 17, Ochoa was jogging in Tijuana when he was shot twice in the head and twice in the back. The eight other Colosio-linked deaths include that of the Tijuana police chief, who was conducting his own investigation of the killing, a commander and a former commander of the federal judicial police and a lawyer who represented a second murder defendant who was later acquitted.

No evidence has been produced to tie any of these deaths directly to the Colosio case. In some cases, the links were tangential. In others, the victims were involved in unrelated activities-such as prosecuting drug traffickers-that might have made them targets for assassination. Yet the sheer number of deaths has investigators exploring the possibility of a Colosio connection.

One favorite conspiracy theory, assiduously denied by federal authorities, is that the Aburto in prison is an impostor. Some contend that the man who was photographed being subdued after shooting Colosio is not Aburto and that the real shooter was killed to cover up the plot. Meanwhile, seven members of Aburto's family were granted political asylum in California.

Various theories of the assassination and its aftermath, some half- baked, some quite plausible, surface from time to time in the Mexican press. One scenario involved a federal agent who was alleged to have killed Colosio and then was executed himself. The agent shot that one down, however, when he showed up in Mexico City and said he was alive, well and recently married. His absence was accounted for by a honeymoon.

A federal judge dealt prosecutors a stunning blow when he acquitted and freed Othon Cortes Vazquez, a low-level PRI worker accused of being a second gunman. Fearing for his life, Cortes has since received special protection from human rights officials.

The acquittal devastated the multiple-gunmen conspiracy theory and led Zedillo to remove the special prosecutor in the case. When a new investigator takes over, he or she will become the fourth to head the inquiry. But the new appointment may take awhile. In the last week, officials have floated the names of four people as possible replacements. All four quickly declined.

It is not so much that they fear for their personal security, according to observers. But they see the Colosio case as a no-win situation, a political graveyard. Polls show that the vast majority of Mexicans believe Colosio was the victim of a far-reaching plot, probably engineered by a faction of his own ruling party. Any result that falls short of that perception, no matter how thorough, is likely to be rejected as a cover-up, just as millions of Americans refuse to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy.

Alternatively, if the perception turns out to be grounded in reality, and some of the nation's most powerful forces were involved in Colosio's slaying, few Mexicans expect that these people would ever be brought to justice. Seeking to rally support behind the investigation, Zedillo has asked legislators from the four leading political parties to join in naming a new special prosecutor.

But the leading leftist party has pulled out of the process, accusing Zedillo of showing no desire to solve the case. Instead, opponents say, he is merely trying to wash his hands of the whole troubled affair.