'Mexico's Gorbachev' feels the heat

Missing Persons No. 31: Carlos Salinas de Gortari

When he wound up his six-year presidential term nine months ago, Carlos Salinas de Gortari was on a roll. Billed at home and abroad as "Mexico's Gorbachev", his popularity rating was 70 per cent and the US was pushing him for the coveted job of head of the new World Trade Organisation.

Today, the 47-year-old former president is in virtual hiding in Montreal, a pariah in his own country and one step short of fugitive status.

His crime, according to 77 per cent of Mexicans recently polled, was to have disguised the gravity of the country's finances until he completed his term on 1 December. Three weeks later, the peso collapsed, billions of dollars poured from the country and Mexico had to be bailed out the tune of $50bn by the US and the international financial community.

Many Mexicans also believe he may have been involved in, or at least had advance knowledge of, the murder in September 1994 of his Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) secretary-general, Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu. Mr Salinas's elder brother Raul was detained in February on suspicion that he ordered the killing for reasons still unclear. Carlos Salinas vehemently denied any involvement and insisted his brother was innocent. But his conduct after his brother's arrest was a far cry from the cool statesman who had been the darling of the Americans.

First, in early March, the ex-president staged a hunger strike in the simple home of a poor worker in the city of Monterrey, demanding that his successor, Ernesto Zedillo, clear his name. Then he cut and ran. Mr Salinas left Mexico on board a private jet bound for New York on 11 March. There were conflicting reports as to whether his wife Cecilia and three teenage children were with him.

Although all tourists are scrutinised by US immigration, the authorities feigned ignorance as to where and when he arrived. He was believed to have been allowed in on a six-month tourist visa and was reported to have lived first in Connecticut.

Since then, Salinas sightings have been rare. He was spotted in New York with his old friend Manuel Tello, Mexico's ambassador to the UN.

Then he showed up at the annual shareholders' assembly of Dow Jones, sitting among the audience as he was re-elected to the company's board. He gave reporters the slip on the way out.

In June, the FBI reportedly uncovered evidence that both Carlos and Raul Salinas, and their father, Raul senior - a former government minister and senator - had friendly ties with two of Mexico's top drug lords.

Apparently feeling the heat, Mr Salinas left the US and was last sighted in Montreal. He told friends he was preparing his case in the event of Mexico seeking his return and was writing a book he predicted would be a world-wide best-seller.

PHIL DAVISON

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