Special Report on Mexico: Discreet administrator in the President's office: Colin Harding describes how an outsider entered the inner circle to become an influential adviser

DESPITE the best efforts of President Salinas to open things up, nobody really knows what goes on behind the closed doors, so they speculate or make it up. One of the rumour mills' most popular lines is the story that the government is really run by a taciturn, publicity-shunning Frenchman, who lurks in the presidential shadow, pulling the strings and controlling events. His name is Jose Maria Cordoba Montoya.

Mr Cordoba was born near Marseilles 42 years ago of Spanish Republican parents, and educated in French schools and universities. He took a degree in engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and a master's degree in philosophy at the Sorbonne. He is now a Mexican, but is said by some to be more comfortable in French than Spanish.

Mr Cordoba's role, while undoubtedly influential, is perhaps better understood in the context of the group of US-educated technocrats who form the cutting edge of the Salinas administration. He studied for a doctorate in economics at Stanford University between 1974 and 1977, while keeping up his French interests by working for Francois Mitterrand's 1974 presidential campaign alongside Jacques Attali. At Stanford, his room-mate was Guillermo Ortiz Martinez, who later became under-secretary of finance in the Salinas administration. Mr Cordoba was subsequently invited to Mexico as a visiting professor of economics at the Colegio de Mexico, the local equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge rolled into one. A pupil of his there describes him as 'able, austere and quite without a political agenda of his own'.

At the Colegio, Mr Cordoba met others who became senior figures in the present government, among them the industry and trade secretary, Jaime Serra Puche, and the mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Camacho Solis.

Mr Cordoba moved smoothly into the finance ministry as an adviser to the current under-secretary, Francisco Gil Diaz. In 1980 he was appointed head of regional planning in the budget department, where Carlos Salinas de Gortari was head of economic and social policy. By 1985, Mr Cordoba was in charge of devising development policy priorities and alternatives for President de la Madrid.

By the time Mr Salinas was selected as presidential candidate in early 1988, Mr Cordoba was his closest adviser. He is credited with setting up the meeting in Houston that year with President Bush which set the agenda for the new, much closer relationship between the two countries.

Mr Cordoba now has an office next to the President's in Los Pinos, the residence where Mr Salinas prefers to work. His role is thought to be roughly equivalent to that of Cabinet Secretary, servicing the specialist government sub-committees, drawing up minutes and controlling the flow of paper across the President's desk. Admirers and detractors alike agree that his domestic role is very discreet - he appears little in public and prefers to listen and take notes rather than offer his own views. His profile abroad is very much higher. He is more active in the formulation of foreign policy than the minister, Fernando Solana, and is sometimes referred to in the US and Europe as the 'Vice-President of Mexico' - a non-existent position.

While President Salinas appears to rely heavily on Mr Cordoba's advice the suggestion that he is the real power behind the throne is almost certainly without substance: Mr Cordoba is more of a plenipotentiary than a dauphin. Like Mr Serra Puche, his Spanish parentage means that he can never become president.

(Photograph omitted)