COLOSIO made an easy target. Be fore going to a Tijuana shantytown called Lo mas Taurinas last week, he asked officials to keep his security detail light. Presidential, candidates of Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are expected to dive into crowds; it's part of an elaborate populist ritual aimed at obscuring the fact that the candidate is chosen not by the people but by the outgoing president. What happened next in Tijuana tore up the campaign script. As Colosio left the rally, a man tugged at his arm, then pressed a .38-caliber revolver to the candidate's right temple and pulled the trigger. When Colosio fell, the assassin fired again, hitting him in the abdomen. Local newspapers reported that the gunman shouted a boast as police pulled him, bloodied, away from the enraged crowd: "I have saved Mexico!"
The assassination plunged the country's political system into its worst crisis since 1928, when the slaying of Mexico's last military strongman led to the PRI's creation. And while it may not shatter his party, the death of Colosio, 44, was only the latest in a series of blows to the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment to Mexico by liberalizing the economy and pitching the country as a fast-modernizing bastion of stability. Since January, that image has been tarnished by a peasant uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, the threat of a renegade presidential bid by the government's representative to peace talks with the rebels and the unsolved kidnapping this month of one of the country's most powerful financiers. But none of those setbacks matched the assassination's impact on Mexicans-and on Americans, their new partners under the North American Free Trade Agreement. "All the stability we used to take for granted in Mexico feels at risk now," said Porfirio Perez, 61, as he waited to see Colosio's casket carried out of the PRI headquarters. "I've never known this feeling that everything was out of control."
Mexico and the United States both hurried to head off the most predictable backlash-the sudden flight of capital that could destabilize the Mexican economy. Salinas ordered the Mexico City Stock Exchange, banks and exchange houses to close for a day. And even as Colosio's body lay in state, Mexican officials called foreign banks and brokerage houses to announce that they would use foreign-currency reserves to protect against a run on the peso. President Bill Clinton, too, took the offensive. ,,we think that the country's institutions are fundamentally strong," he declared. The Federal Reserve Bank and U.S. Treasury jointly made $6 billion available, pledging "continued strong U.S. support for Mexico's economic policies." And perhaps not coincidentally, Mexico was admitted to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of some of the world's richest nations.
The crisis management worked. The Mexican stock market took only a minor dip, and the peso lost less than 1 percent of its value. But the official show of confidence masked deep concern about the long-term aftershocks. Indeed, the assassination disrupted Mexico's economic plans. This year its central bank had been expected to gradually devalue the peso in order to reduce the high interest rates that have brought in foreign capital but held down Mexican business. Colosio's most potent opponent, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, has scored heavily among voters by pointing out that Mexico's poor have grown even poorer under Salinas's vaunted economic reforms. Now the need to keep the peso strong all but ensures that new jobs will be scarce. Salinas must abandon his hopes of alleviating poverty by improving chances for the average worker.
Finding a new candidate may be even more frustrating. Party leaders want to move quickly to avoid looking weak, but Salinas is hobbled by a rule disqualifying politicians who have served in government within six months of the election. That eliminates all cabinet members, including the powerful Finance Minister Pedro Aspe. The business community's choice, former budget and education secretary Ernesto Zedillo, is considered such a bland political neophyte that he might lose the election. Salinas is so weak now that he may not be able to name a successor on his own, and there is no obvious consensus candidate. Even before the assassination, the Chiapas uprising had split the PRI. Its progressive wing has argued that Mexican society is under siege because Salinas has been too halfhearted about democratic reform. But hard-liners-known as los dinosauros-accuse Salinas of knuckling under to terror in his handling of the Chiapas crisis. They bitterly oppose a series of pending reforms that would make it far harder for the PRI machine to steal elections. Colosio had been campaigning on a pledge to work for greater social justice and political reform, but his death may have strengthened the hand of the hardliners. One such sign is that former interior minister Fernando Gutierrez, who has repeatedly warned Salinas about the dangers of reform, was touted as another possible successor.
The deepest fear of U.S. diplomats is that the Mexican security establishment, supported by PRI dinosauros, will use the assassination as the pretext for a campaign of repression. "I do worry about a backlash from the right-a campaign of selective terrorism," said author Carlos Monsivais. Warns Marieclaire Acosta, president of the independent Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights: "This could become a right-wing horror."
Unanswered questions about the assassination fueled fears of more violence. Authorities identified the gunman as Mario Aburto Martinez, a 23-year-old mechanic who lived near the shooting scene. They insisted that he acted alone. A high-level government official said investigators found a notebook of Aburto's containing strange drawings of his soul entering Colosio's body and writing that indicated he had planned such a killing for five years. Still, many Mexicans were already convinced that the gunman was part of a wider conspiracy Such cynicism can only complicate the political salvage job facing the PRI's next candidate, no matter who he is.