The Big Snatch

Felipe Calderon’s state visit to Washington last week (May 19th-20th) and his appearance before a joint session of the U.S. Congress puts the Official Barack Obama Seal of Approval on a bogusly elected chief of state the legitimacy of whose presidency continues to be questioned south of the border.

The White House state dinner served up by the Obamas to the Mexican “president” and his first lady Margarita Zavala included Oregon beef and Oaxaca black mole, Beyonce, George Lopez, the U.S. Marine Corps Band, and spectacular security to keep potential party crashers out – last November, an Iranian American couple bamboozled the Secret Service and slipped into the Obamas’ first-ever state dinner, a gala honoring Indian premier Mahmonan Singh.

Although Felipe Calderon’s 35 minute speech to a joint session of Congress the next noon was predictably protocolic, he animated polemic by calling for repeal of Arizona’s “Breathing While Brown” law and a renewed ban on the sale of assault weapons readily available at 7000 gun shops along the border from which Mexican drug cartels stockpile their arsenals – 23,000 Mexican citizens have lost their lives since Calderon sought to curry favor with Washington by declaring an ill-conceived war on the drug gangs 40 months ago.

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cheerleading, somnolent Democrats who hold a diminishing majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress, offered Calderon a lukewarm ovation while Republicans, mortally miffed by the Mexican politico’s assault on U.S. gun rights, sat stiffly on their hands, an uncomfortable position.

Ironically, since Calderon’s “victory” in the fraud-marred 2006 election here, he has not been able to address his own congress because of threatened protests by the opposition in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Mexican Senate.

Felipe Calderon’s subsequent visit to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier provoked widespread condemnation back home. No Mexican president had ever before paid his respects at Arlington where U.S. troops who participated in three invasions (1846, 1914, 1916) of this distant neighbor nation are interred. “Now our national sovereignty is buried there,” critiqued radical anthropologist Gilberto Lopez y Rivas interviewed by this reporter at a symposium on indigenous rights and customs – Rivas y Lopez was once deported from the U.S. after being accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

After four months on the road with “El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption In Mexico City”, I have returned to the scene of the crime. Social decomposition in my neighborhood and adopted country seems generalized. Two blocks east, the floor of the great Zocalo plaza is covered with improvised encampments of dissident workers and Indians. 100 members of the SME (Mexican Electricity Workers Union) who lost their jobs last October after Calderon declared the state-run Luz y Fuerza Company bankrupt and fired 43,000 union members in a ploy to privatize electricity generation here, have been on hunger strike for more than a month to urge Mexico’s Supreme Court to nullify the dissolution order and priests are now delivering last rites to those in imminent danger of dying.

Also camped out in the Zocalo are militant teachers from Oaxaca state whose 2006 strike in that southern state triggered brutal government repression, and Triqui Indians from the autonomous village of San Juan Copala in Oaxaca’s Mixteco mountains which is under siege from paramilitary gangs thought to be aligned with outgoing governor Ulysis Ruiz, a bigwig in the once-ruling PRI party whose gunsills murdered 26 activists during the 2006 teachers’ rebellion.

On April 27th, heavily armed goons attacked a caravan that sought to bring food and medical supplies to the besieged Oaxacan village, killing one international observer and Alberta “Bety” Carino, an indefatigueable defender of Mexico’s native corn and the rights of indigenous women.

“We’re at the end of our rope. We cannot endure even one more day of this repression,” Berta Robledo, a retired nurse shaking a can for contributions to the hunger strikers in the Zocalo, bitterly declares. The volatile mix of desperation and fury in the great plaza seems a microcosm of Calderon’s Mexico.

During the President’s five day junket to Washington and the European Union to tout his country’s purported recovery from economic disaster (nearly a million Mexicans lost jobs in the first three months of 2010), the social fabric here was further frayed by the murky disappearance of Diego Fernandez de Cevallos AKA “El Jefe” (“The Boss”), the right-wing PAN party’s presidential candidate in 1994 who is thought to be an aspirant to succeed Calderon in 2012. El Jefe was apparently taken prisoner late on May 14th outside his La Cabana hacienda in the state of Queretero two hours north of the capital.

Queretero, a conservative bailiwick where the Catholic Church exerts considerable influence on public policy, had been run for the past 12 years by Calderon and Diego’s PAN party but ceded power back to the PRI last year. Some observers see a political subtext to the snatch.

The only clue so far disclosed by tight-lipped authorities appears to be a pair of bloody scissors that El Jefe used to trim his unruly beard. The scissors were found locked in Fernandez de Cevallos’s Cadillac Esplanade pick-up and are thought to have been deployed to extract a microchip embedded in the PANista’s shoulder in order to foil satellite location of El Jefe.

Although Fernandez de Cevallos’s family has pleaded with the press and the government to clam up while they try to establish contact with the kidnappers, wild rumors, false sightings, stupefied conjecture, even prophecy and prayer has reverberated throughout Mexico’s shaken-up political class. A possibly doctored photograph of a blindfolded Diego posted on an Internet site and signed off by “the mysterious disappearers” has only deepened public speculation.

Suggested scenarios are a dime a dozen and because the political landscape here is so chaotic, all of them are possible. Fernandez de Cevallos is or was a feisty, cigar-chomping litigator of choice for the oligarchy, winning multi-million dollar settlements for his clients and incurring multiple enemies in the process, any one of whom might be motivated to take maximum revenge on El Jefe.

Despite widely-reported differences with Calderon, Fernandez de Cevallos has enjoyed considerable juice with the current regime: former law partner Fernando Gomez Mont is Calderon’s Secretary of the Interior, the second most powerful position in Mexico’s political hierarchy, and another longtime associate, Arturo Chavez Chavez, is the nation’s attorney general. Diego has successfully lobbied for the inclusion of cronies on the Supreme Court such as Margarita Luna Ramos for whose family he once won $250 million USD in a land battle with Mexico City.

Another theory reads El Jefe’s disappearance as an “ajuste de cuentas”, a settling of accounts perpetrated by either the Juarez drug cartel or its ardent rivals, the Sinaloa boys. Fernandez de Cevallos’s ties to the Juarez Cartel have long been a matter of public record. Diego was the legal representative for the Santa Clara Hospital where cartel chieftain Amado Carrillo, “The Lord of the Skies”, expired, purportedly during a 1998 liposuction procedure. Carrillo had rented out the entire hospital which is located a scant mile from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. The doctors who administered to the Lord of the Skies were later found diced up and encased in concrete overcoats near Acapulco.

El Jefe also served as the legal advisor for the funeral home where Carillo was reputedly cremated. In life, the Lord of the Skies was privileged with the protection of the Czar of the Mexican branch of the White House’s War on Drugs, the disgraced General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo.

According to the testimony of one of Amado Carrillo’s sons, Fernandez de Cevallos also steered millions of Juarez Cartel dollars into the coffers of another client, the Anahuac Bank, which later went belly-up.

The Juarez Cartel has been enmeshed in a bloody battle with El Chapo Guzman whose Sinaloa Cartel appears to have finally wrested Ciudad Juarez, a key drug-crossing point, from the Carrillos. El Chapo is believed to be the favored drug lord of both Felipe Calderon and his predecessor Vicente Fox, having escaped from a maximum security prison a month after Fox’s inauguration in 2001.

One corollary to this scenario pictures El Jefe as being held hostage by El Chapo to be exchanged for the Sinaloa Cartel’s Number Three honcho Nacho Coronel whose arrest has never been made public – the usual modus operandi of Mexican security forces when they trap a “pez gordo” (“big fish”) is to broadcast the catch with maximum bombast. Both the Army and the Navy deny having Coronel who was reportedly captured at the end of April in Jalisco state but civilian agencies from the Mexican Federal Police to the Public Security Secretariat to the U.S. FBI or DEA remain likely suspects in the Coronel snatch.

Yet another hypothesis ascribes the taking of Diego to an unidentified armed guerrilla grouping. Mexico has often been a stage set for flamboyant political kidnappings such as the 1994 hostage taking of Alfredo Harp Helu, the billionaire president of Banamex, Mexico’s oldest bank (now part of Citigroup) and the cousin of the world’s wealthiest tycoon Carlos Slim. A record ransom – reputedly $14 million USD – was thought to have been paid out to the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) which subsequently equipped itself with sophisticated weaponry and fought a brief and bloody war with the Mexican Army.

The EPR is also thought to have put the snatch on former Interior Secretary Fernando Gutierrez Barrios in 1997 for which $6.5 million was collected – the kidnapping was never made public. The Popular Revolutionary Army has been quick to deny any involvement in the taking of El Jefe Diego.

But as Mexico marks the 100th anniversary of its landmark revolution and fresh insurrection is predicted, other guerrilla formations are certainly in the field. Fernandez de Cevallos’s Queretero hacienda is a short drive from the mountainous Sierra Gorda where a guerrilla presence has been rumored since the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.

Others argue that the snatch is purely a commercial venture with no politics attached but as Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, the dean of Mexican political writers, points out potential kidnappers could have squeezed an astronomical ransom by nabbing any member of the Fernandez de Cevallos family and leaving El Jefe free to negotiate the dollar amount.

The possibility of guerrilla involvement in the taking of this embattled politico gained currency May 18th when General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro was gunned down on a Mexico City street by unknowns. Acosta Chaparro was a pivotal figure in hundreds of extra-judicial executions of suspected guerrilla fighters during the 1970s in Guerrero, once an EPR stronghold. Although never convicted of human rights abuses, the General served several years in prison for providing protection to Carrillo’s Juarez Cartel – a military court later reversed the sentence. Now Proceso magazine is reporting that Acosta Chaparro had been contracted by Jefe Diego’s family to investigate his disappearance.

But the most curious scenario to have emerged from this all-star imbroglio is that El Jefe has kidnapped himself, an “auto-secuestro” in Mexican criminal argot, and that he will soon reappear as the savior of the PAN and be ordained the battered right-wing party’s presidential candidate in 2012.

A stridently Machista misogynist and racist voice (he once argued that indigenous uses and customs promote human sacrifice), Diego Fernandez de Cevallos has the unqualified backing of both the PAN and the PRI’s most retrograde sectors. El Jefe Diego has been a political mover and shaker for a generation who is often accused of influence peddling and has long-standing ties to the family fortunes of reviled ex-president Carlos Salinas, having signed off on the burning of ballots from the 1988 presidential election stolen by Salinas from leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in exchange for which the PAN received its first governorship (Baja California) and Fernandez de Cevallos a palatial mansion in Acapulco’s swank Punta Diamante subdivision.

Despite an initially strong performance as the PAN presidential candidate in 1994, El Jefe Diego inexplicably abandoned his campaign and vanished from public view. When he finally returned to the hustings, Salinas’s successor Ernesto Zedillo had taking a commanding lead. Political analysts such as Granados Chapa suggest the fix was in.

Now, with his party’s political capital at a low ebb, the result of the devastating economic downturn, the lost war on drugs, and Calderon’s inept presidency, Diego’s return would transform him into the kind of tough guy candidate that many Mexicans crave. “We need a strong man with a hard hand like El Jefe Diego to straighten out this mess. I am praying for his return,” Eder Lenero, a young sympathizer, told me over coffee last week.

As if on cue, billboards featuring Fernandez de Cevallos’s pugnacious mug and slugged “Diego, We Are With You!” suddenly appeared in Queretero but were quickly ordered removed by his family.

JOHN ROSS is the author of El Monstruo.  You can consult him on particulars at




JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to