Judge Ricardo Ojeda found Raul Salinas, 52, guilty of plotting the 1994 murder of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the No 2 man in the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to which the Salinas brothers belonged.
"I must say there was no confession from the guilty party nor direct proof of his guilt. But his responsibility in the crime was shown through circumstantial evidence," Ojeda said in a written statement. Salinas' lawyers said they would appeal and had two more chances by law to free their client, who has come to symbolise how the once untouchable power of Mexican politicians has been undone by democratic change.
"Proof? What proof? There was not a single shred of evidence that merited this sentence," the defendant's attorney, Juan Velazquez, told reporters after the verdict was handed down.
Salinas' family also decried the decision. "I am praying for a quick (appeal), since Raul is innocent of the crimes he is charged of," said his sister, Adriana Salinas.
The conviction was an important victory for President Ernesto Zedillo, who risked his reputation in approving the arrest and broke unwritten political rules that protected former presidents and their families from scrutiny. His party, the PRI, called the decision a triumph for the legal system. "We hope that the judge and judicial branch act strictly in accordance with the truth and the law," said Carlos Rojas, No 2 in the PRI, and social development minister under Salinas.
But he acknowledged the party's worst nightmare - punishment at the polls in the 2000 presidential election, even though the PRI kicked Raul Salinas out of the party years ago. "I hope that this does not have any electoral connotations," he said.
Raul Salinas, also convicted of using false documents and of perjury, had insisted he was innocent ever since his February 1995 arrest, after his brother stepped down as president.
"A tradition has been broken that was respected within the circles of power since the end of the (1910-1917) revolution until today, that neither the president nor his family could be touched," said Lorenzo Meyer, a historian.
A confessed gunman, Daniel Trevino, killed Ruiz Massieu with a single bullet to the neck as he sat in his car outside a Mexico City hotel. The murder was in the same year as the assassination of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and prompted fears that the political system was being torn apart by violence.
The ensuing four-year inquiry gripped most Mexicans and often swung from serious to overtly comic, with a string of different prosecutors handling the case. One, the victim's brother, was later accused of covering up Salinas' involvement, and another prosecutor brought in a witch for help.
Prosecutors argued Salinas planned the murder because of personal and political differences with Ruiz Massieu and hired the killer indirectly through a PRI legislator, Manuel Munoz Rocha, last seen heading towards Salinas' home and now presumed dead. Ruiz Massieu was once married to Salinas' sister.
Former president Salinas, who has not been implicated in the murder, now lives in exile in Ireland.
But many observers felt the government had a weak case, and questioned whether the verdict was reached more for political reasons than for justice.Reuse content