The memorial plaza. Colosio was murdered exactly where the statue stands.
  • The memorial plaza. Colosio was murdered exactly where the statue stands.
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"That’s my story!” whispers Dora Elena Cortés. The newspaper headline on the screen reads “Colosio, Víctima de un Complot.”

It’s a tense scene in the movie Colosio — El Asesinato (Colosio — the Assassination). Somebody is holding up a copy of El Universal, the respected Mexico City newspaper that Cortés has written for since 1984. Her story, “Colosio, Victim of a Plot” is on the front page.

I’m watching the movie with Cortés in a Cinépolis theater in Tijuana’s Plaza Río. It’s scary stuff, implying that the 1994 assassination in Tijuana of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta was ordered from the top of Mexico’s political pyramid.

Cortés is a journalist who was based in Tijuana when the assassination occurred, and she investigated it all through the turbulent years afterward. In fact, the story we’re seeing on the screen owes much to the gutsy reporting she did back then, when Mexico seemed to be tearing apart.

Luis Donaldo Colosio was perhaps Mexico’s most famous presidential candidate. His killing in the rough neighborhood of Lomas Taurinas left a stain on Tijuana, just like the pall that hung over Dallas after President Kennedy was shot there.

And, as with JFK, the government concluded that it was a single gunman — Mario Aburto Martínez — who planned and carried out the assassination.

But two journalists questioned that lone-gunman theory from the outset: Dora Elena Cortés and her partner at El Universal’s Tijuana office, Manuel Cordero.

The movie speculates about what actually happened and why Colosio, the hope for the PRI in changing times, was killed. And why in Tijuana.

Even though the movie says this is a fictional account, it points the finger at the inner circle around President Salinas de Gortari. Colosio was Salinas’s handpicked successor. But in the eyes of the old guard, the movie speculates, the candidate went too far in promising democratic reform. Salinas stayed loyal to Colosio; many of his party, according to the movie, didn’t.

In real life, Cortés and Cordero spent two years interviewing anybody who would talk. They came to similar conclusions. They ended up writing a book and winning Mexico’s national journalism prize for their coverage.

But at considerable risk. After the assassination, at least 15 people linked to the case were murdered or died mysteriously.

“I have had panic attacks,” Cortés told me in a previous interview, “fears that people were following me. There was a moment when I started feeling real fear and hysteria. Maybe when I arrived home somebody might be waiting outside for me.”

And now? “Whatever happens happens,” she says.

“For me, she is the best reporter in Tijuana,” Victor Clark Alfaro, the Tijuana-based human rights activist, told me once. “She has written many things on many occasions that make you think, This woman is going to be killed. But she has not held back from writing the truth.”

So, what did happen in 1994? We drive out to the colonia of Lomas Taurinas in the hilly eastern part of the city. Down steep roads to Mimiahuapan, the street that runs along the valley floor.

The sun’s beating down on the pavers. Most people favor the shade, passing by under trees with whitewashed trunks. At the top of ceremonial steps, a statue of Colosio stands waving to an absent crowd, a couple of bronze pens in his bronze breast pocket.

“This is the exact spot where he was killed,” says Cortés, “except that they have raised the site to create the monument. Before, here, it was just dirt. And on that day, it had been raining. So mud and aguas negras — sewage water — ran down Calzada Mimiahuapan. They still have ceremonies on the date. Of course, they’re bigger when it’s an election year.

“I didn’t arrive till the next day,” she continues, “but this is what happened.”

She takes a deep breath.

Dora Elena Cortés

Dora Elena Cortés

“Right here, about four in the afternoon, several hundred people were milling round waiting for the candidate. They were a little bothered because they hadn’t been given the flags and banners they usually give them to do the welcome. They thought that everything was a little bit on the cold side.”

Now she’s back in the scene. “So, Colosio arrives. He gets up onto the back of a pickup. There was no stage. Two or three people speak before him. Then he makes a speech about what he wants to do for Mexico. He finishes, gets down off the back of the pickup truck, and the music starts.”

Cortés says one of the tunes that seemed to be playing constantly through the loudspeakers was “El Baile de la Culebra” — “The Dance of the Snake.” I suddenly saw a snake looking at me... I won’t be able to dance if it bites my legs... Be careful of the snake…

“So now he walks toward the exit, heading down to the vehicles. Then there’s kind of a strange moment where they surround him. Tucanes — retired cops — CISEN intelligence agents, other people. And then they start pushing him toward this spot. They walk him, steer him, and they end up right here.

“His head of security stays back, two or three people are in front of him. In those last minutes, Colosio is backing up, or being pushed back. And then, suddenly — though nobody seems to notice, because there’s this crush of people — someone turns the music right up, just as someone else raises a gun and fires.”

But, they discovered later that there were two shots, one that went through his head, coming in from the left, the other that entered his stomach, coming in from the right.

Colosio statue

Colosio statue

“After the shooting, even the people around him don’t realize what’s happening until they see him on the ground. Somebody starts shouting, ‘They have hit the candidate with a bullet! Un balazo! They’ve hit the candidate with a bullet!’ People thought he had said the presidential candidate had been hit with a stick. Un palazo. The first versions the press got were that he had been hit on the head with a piece of wood.

“But then police and first-aid people said it wasn’t a palazo, it was a balazo.

“I came the following day and almost every day after that for two years.

“We based our first article on what the doctor told us about the wounds,” says Cortés. “A lady, Dr. Aubanel, sister of the ex-wife of the current mayor of Tijuana, Carlos Bustamante. Aubanel’s a cardiologist. She said she saw evidence of wounds from two different bullets. But she only said that once. She wouldn’t say that anymore. The government came right out and said there was only one gun involved, and I believe she was told from then on to say that she wasn’t an expert.”

Cortés was under the same pressure: to go along with the government’s lone-gunman line, that Mario Aburto Martínez was the sole shooter and plotter. But within four days, Cortés and Cordero were convinced otherwise. They wrote the story with the headline that sent a ripple through the nation: “Colosio: Victim of a Plot.”

What plot?

Eighteen years after the assassination, there is still no agreement. “They handled the question in the movie the same way we did in the book,” says Cortés. “It could have involved organized crime, political groups, or the [old guard] interests that were affected by the naming of Colosio.”

The most widely believed theory is that Colosio proved too keen a reformer. Just days before he was shot, Colosio gave a speech to huge crowds in Mexico City: “I see in Mexico a hunger and a thirst for justice...women and men afflicted by the abuse of the authorities or by the arrogance of governmental offices.”

It was an open push toward a more transparent and responsive democracy. The old guard of the PRI must have been having heart attacks.

And although other papers clung tenaciously to the single-shooter line (including, surprisingly, the fearless Tijuana weekly Zeta), today, nearly two decades later, Cortés feels a little vindicated by the movie we’ve seen.

“It’s fiction, but it’s very similar to what we uncovered,” she says. “I think they read our book very closely, and then they worked out the movie script.”

So, has anything changed in the intervening years?

“The fact that they were able to make and exhibit this movie shows we have made some progress.” ■

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David Dodd Aug. 8, 2012 @ 10:59 a.m.

It's fiction. The murder of Colosio is now more of a convoluted conspiracy theory than the murder of JFK. It's fiction because there will never be a truth in this. Even the most noble of journalists will never reach any sort of a truth in this, because there isn't a truth to reach for.

This is what ALL governments do, all of them. The truth is erased before it can ever be uncovered.


Bob_Hudson Aug. 8, 2012 @ 8:46 p.m.

At the time of that campaign I worked for the late Victor Diaz, owner of the Califormula Radio Group which had radio broadcast operations in Tijuana and Chula Vista. Victor loved to talk about politics and because of my past experience in US politics (including US-Mexico policy issues), the topic came up often, and he gave me some interesting insights into Mexican politics. One he we talked about the man he jokingly called "Don Donaldo," and said, "He will never be elected." That surprised me since being the PRI candidate was tantamount to being President-elect.

The morning I heard Colosio had been killed I called Victor and reminded him of that statement. His voice became quite shrill and shaky as he almost shouted his response, "I never said that, I never said that and don't ever repeat that!"

1994 was also the year when the the secretary-general of the PRI was assassinated. A newspaper account noted, "The attorney general's office...released a report naming nearly 30 suspects. Some are "intellectual authors," some are "operational members," some are "incidental actors." Prosecutors even devised a flow chart that looks like a family tree."

The facts of these assassinations were not exactly a secret: there were lots of people involved and thanks to some of them, word traveled fast after the deed was done. Victor had once told me how his personal chief of security (a former Mexican cop) had provided details on the killing of one public figure. I got that feeling that in Mexico sharing such details was a way to show that you were in the loop, such as it was. Between the stories and some of things i witnessed myself, I learned that the PRI was not going to go down without a fight, even if it involved live ammo.

The man who replaced Colosio as the 1994 presidential candidate was the last PRI president elected and the end of his term marked the end of a 71 year virtual dictatorship by the PRI (the "perfect dictatorship," was the term applied to that reign by 2010 Nobel Prize recipient Mario Vargas Llosa).

Last month the PRI retrieved the presidency it had lost 12 years ago. It could be said that Mexico experimented with democracy in the interim and it will be interesting to see if that experiment ends and heavy-handed authoritarianism returns.

¡Qué viva México!


Visduh Aug. 10, 2012 @ 9:17 p.m.

Within a day or two prior to the assassination of Colosio, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece that said the PRI was very worried that he might LOSE. And that wasn't written by financial weenies in NYC, it was based on the best reporters they could assemble from Mexican sources. While all now seem to remember him as a charismatic speaker and a magnetic personality, others were describing him as a party hack in the PRI and the last in a series of steadily weaker candidates. Oh, yes, he had an advanced degree from some US university (maybe Harvard!), but he had only worked in the ever-more-corrupt PRI national government. Hey at that time, were there any real private-sector jobs there? So, he was one of those elites groomed for high office, and he looked as good as any other choice. I'd often thought that when he was murdered the PRI could then claim that the replacement was carrying the torch (whatever that was) for the fallen candidate, and secure election. The replacement was elected.

It all has parallels with the JFK assassination and the ascendency of LBJ. The other parallels are all the unanswered and dangling details surrounding both killings. I'm not a believer of any specific theory of conspiracy about either assassination, but I do know we never heard anything like the true story of either one.


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