"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.
“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.
“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.”
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.” ■