A place where corruption starts at the top


The front page of The Irish Times was spread across the television screens of America one night this week. The former president of Mexico, Mr Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was sitting on a park bench beside a canal reading the newspaper.

A commentator for Frontline, a PBS programme (Public Broadcasting Service) in the US, hovered nearby. The programme focused on institutionalised corruption in Mexico which reportedly amounts to billions of dollars annually. Dublin was one of several locations in the broadcast. Another was Switzerland, where the dollars from drug deals are stored in banks.

Apart from stating that Mr Salinas lives in comfortable exile in Ireland, he was not personally involved in the programme. Before the arrest of Mr Salinas's brother, who is in solitary confinement in a Mexican prison, there were rumours but no evidence that corruption started at the top in Mexican politics.

When Raul Salinas was arrested, he had three false passports with false identification papers. His wife was arrested in Switzerland with a document giving her control of $84 million (£61 million) in a bank account there. She was detained for a month. Swiss bankers hold the money.

Mr Carlos Salinas has a doctorate in economics from Harvard. A colleague at America's premier university praised his vision of what should be done to modernise the Mexican economy. When he took office he had reason to believe higher oil prices following an OPEC agreement to limit production would resolve Mexico's economic problems. Falling oil prices cost Mexico about £2 billion a year.

"I think you'd have to say he's very intelligent and had a strategic plan for Mexico," his colleague added. "The US did a deal - NAFTA - with Mexico. When his presidency ended he was the most popular holder of the office in history."

The Mexican police began an all-out war on drug dealers under Salinas. Whether this was public relations or fact is open to question. Meanwhile, drugs from Colombia were going over the Rio Grande into the US.

Another contributor recalled invitations to a dinner for billionaires by Mexico's ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), at which guests were asked to contribute $25 million each.

Mr Salinas finished his six-year term to universal praise. The succession plans of the PRI leadership were thrown into disorder by a series of murders of prominent people including a cardinal, the presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the secretary general of the party, Juan Jesus Posados, and his second-in-command, Jose Francisco Massieu.

Mexicans suspect the murders were connected with the drug trade. Two weeks after the Ruiz Massieu assassination, the attorney general's office in Mexico City was told by a confessed accomplice that "senior hardline politicians" of the PRI were behind the killing of the presidential candidate and the party leaders.

There is a US angle apart from providing the market for drugs. Raul Salinas sent his money to Switzerland via a bank in New York. A vice-president there who dealt with him said on the programme she did not question his transactions because "it would be like questioning the Rockefellers about where they got their money". Banks in the United States which handle drug money risk forfeiture of their licences.