As it has happened on a yearly basis since 1995, March 23 is a date set apart at the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to remember the life of Luis Donaldo Colosio, assassinated by a lone gunman in Tijuana while on a stomping tour as candidate for the presidency of Mexico.
The ritual was repeated last night at PRI headquarters in Mexico City, where the keynote speaker was Health Secretary José Narro. But regardless of what Narro and the PRI political machinery come up with, once again they will fail at bringing credibility to a nation that can’t prove but “knows” that Colosio’s was a political assassination concocted during the peak of the Carlos Salinas de Gortari presidency.
But let’s look at a broad sequence of events starting January 1, 1994. On New Year’s Eve, a group of Chiapas indigenous people rose in arms against the Salinas Administration in the towns of San Cristóbal Las Casas and Ocosingo. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZNL) guerillas led by a rebel named Marcos staged a surprise attack at Army garrisons killing approximately 180 soldiers who got caught celebrating.
The reaction from the Army was brutal. They went after the rebels and in two days they had knocked out the Zapatista guerrillas. The response from the Army was such that international organizations called upon President Salinas to stop the carnage. On the fourth day of “battle,” the Zapatista guerrillas went back into the Lacandona Jungle but were not pursued as Salinas stopped the counter-attack cold.
This event marked the beginning of 1994, a year with presidential elections coming up in July.
Colosio had been a handpicked PRI candidate for the presidency by President Salinas on Nov. 28, 1993, as he had been the man who had led the PRI for the past two years and successfully reorganized the party despite portentous opposition from the recently born Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), who became a veritable opposition headache to Salinas.
To PRD’s leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Colosio was just another dirty politico member of a party who was ready to continue stealing elections through the same electoral maneuvers the PRI had always used, that is, ballot box stuffing, multiple voting cards with people doing what was then known as the merry-go-round, etc.
Once Colosio was nominated, all opponents stepped aside and staged the ceremony typically known as “la cargada,” the charge of all political groups, in favor of the PRI candidate.
Yet the Zapatista rebellion shook the nation up and on March 3, during the campaign, began challenging old beliefs of the PRI during the PRI anniversary ceremony at Revolution Monument. Colosio tried to set a new course to the party, but the January Zapatista rebellion hit home, because it emphasized the poverty and misery of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
“As the party of stability and social justice, we are ashamed to notice we were not sensitive to the great claims of our communities, that we are not on their side in their aspirations, that we were not up to the commitment they have expected from us. We have to stay by the self-criticism and we have break with the practices that made us a rigid organization. We have to overcome the attitudes that weaken our capacity for innovation and change.”
The speech was interpreted not just by a rejection of systematic prejudice against the 56 Indian communities of Mexico, but pundits read it as a slap on the face to President Salinas de Gortari and Colosio, drawing a line between them.
On March 4, Colosio formally registered as the official PRI candidate.
Two weeks went by before the assassination took place in a popular Tijuana neighborhood called Lomas Taurinas, Taurine Hills, at circa 5 p.m when Colosio got shot in the head with a .38 revolver allegedly by Mario Aburto Martínez.
I say “allegedly” because like me, nobody believed Aburto had done it. First of all, the entire nation saw the original video of Colosio getting the shot, his eyes turning white-blank, and collapsing.
The gun man was nabbed on the spot and beaten up beyond recognition. The next day he was presented before the media and surprise, it was not the same guy we saw the day before. I remember that when seeing “the second Aburto” now in jail on a 38-year sentence, he was not the guy in every newspaper photo.
In fact, in those days, even the Laredo, Texas, Police Department specialists did cranial studies on the original killer and the Aburto we have today was not the one who pulled the trigger. Nevertheless prosecutors stood their ground and kept Aburto as the culprit. Even to the day there is doubt that the whole Aburto farce was a cover-up of a State Crime.
Beyond that, what ensued was that of all the potential candidates available to President Salinas. He picked Ernesto Zedillo, who six months before had resigned as Secretary of Education in order to manage Colosio’s electoral program. When the assassination time came, Zedillo was spending a day in his home town of Mexicali, comfortably far from the murder scene.
The end of the story is that Salinas de Gortari; guilty because he was president, is now living in oblivion, though many claim that he’s still the puppeteer pulling the strings at PRI.
The Zapatista movement managed to survive in separation from the rest of the nation while PRI went on to lose the presidency for 12 years to the National Action Party (PAN).
Nowadays the commemoration of Colosio at PRI garners ever diminishing attention as time goes by, but it represents a good occasions for opponents to claim that Colosio was just another corrupt PRI politician and that his presidency would have meant no real change, neither for the people nor the indigenous community.
Are they right? We’ll never know.