20 May 2010

"Jefe Diego" still missing

Former National Action Party presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos went missing May 14 and remains missing. What became of the political and legal heavyweight known as "Diego the Boss" remains a mystery and the subject of speculation.

As of May 20, federal officials had released no plausible theories for his disappearance from his ranch in the state of Querétaro. Possible motives such as kidnapping, revenge and narcotics-trafficking cartels possibly sending a message by abducting a political figure - one with a close relationships to the interior minister and attorney general - have been discarded.

Others, ranging from the president to a rebel group to the family, have all publicly stated their bewilderment at what has shaped up as one of Mexico's most curious political mysteries and comes amid a nationwide crackdown on narcotics-trafficking cartels and organized crime that has claimed some 23,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

Calderón told CNN in a May 19 interview, "Until now, it's a mystery," and discarded suggestions the disappearance was the work of narcotics-trafficking cartels trying to send a message. "Criminals send me clear messages through other channels," he said.

The EPR rebel group also expressed mystery at the disappearance. The group - which claimed responsibility for pipeline explosions three years ago - said it was not involved in any possible crime.

The Fernández de Cevallos family, meanwhile, pleaded with any potential kidnappers to please contact them.

Politicians from all the political parties have expressed preoccupation with the disappearance of "Jefe Diego" - even though Fernández de Cevallos has cut a controversial path throughout his legal and political careers. The latter has been marked by his work as a PAN operative, presidential candidate, party leader in the Chamber of Deputies and, most recently, senator.

The 2008 book, "The Untouchables," listed Fernández de Cevallos as one of its 10 Mexicans operating with impunity (others profiled in the book included boxer Julio César Chávez, Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara and discount-drug baron Victor González Torres).

Some in the PAN despise Fernández de Cevallos and Calderón has not been considered close with "Jefe Diego," although relations between the two men have reputedly have thawed in recent years as members of the PAN's "Diego faction" such as Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont and Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez have assumed senior cabinet positions.

"The Diego faction has been wary of Calderón, but Diego has been placing some of his people so they're not completely out of it," said Federico Estévez, political science professor at ITAM.

"His best placement of course was Gómez-Mont ... although I'm not saying (Fernández de Cevallos) engineered it."

"Jefe Diego" - like much of the PAN establishment - didn't back Calderón in his run for the 2006 presidential nomination.

Fernández de Cevallos is best known for being the 1994 PAN presidential candidate and winning the first-ever presidential debate with PRD candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo - the eventual election victor. Despite winning the debate, Fernández de Cevallos mysteriously maintained a low profile throughout the rest of the campaign.

He previously served in the Chamber of Deputies, where, along with Gómez-Mont, he led one of the most successful PAN negotiating teams in party history and was able to broker deals in the early 1990s on such things as financial reform and the formation of the Federal Electoral Institute.

"They got big policy designed ... they changed the electoral system and got the reforms they wanted," Estévez said. "A lot of the economic policy was also very panísta."

But Fernández de Cevallos became especially controversial for - among other things - his 2000 - 2006 term in the Senate. While sitting as a Senator, he represented some of Mexico's most elite companies as they took legal action against the federal government and won large judgments. In a 2002 case, he won a case against Hacienda (the Finance Secretariat), forcing the return of 1.8 billion pesos to his client, Jugos del Valle.

His moonlighting prompted the introduction of the so-called "ley antidiego," which remains frozen in the Chamber of Deputies.

Fernández de Cevallos won other judgments after leaving the Senate, although he recently lost an especially large case in the Supreme Court. The court rejected arguments that his client, who had purchased a Banamex investment in 1987 at an interested rate of 91 percent, was owed 250 billion pesos (roughly $20 billion).

His political maneuverings won him the most controversy - especially with the Mexican left, a group for which Fernández de Cevallos and his protege, Gómez-Mont, have had an abiding dislike, according to many political observers.

That dislike was on display earlier this year, when Gómez-Mont resigned from from PAN over the party's decision to form alliances with the left-leaning PRD for the 2010 gubernatorial elections in states such as Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Puebla. For his part, Fernández de Cevallos, a long-time opponent of electoral alliances, blasted the deals, too.

His past wars with the left have been legendary. Fernández de Cevallos reputedly played a role in making the Mexico City video scandals public early in the last decade. Those scandals caught on film local PRD rainmaker René Bejarano - a former chief-of-staff to ex-Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador - accepting cash from developer Carlos Ahumada.

After the close 2006 election - when Calderón narrowly beat López Obrador by less than a percentage point in the official vote count - the outcome was decided by a panel of judges known as the federal electoral tribunal, or Trife. In the Trife, according to the book, "The Untouchables," "It was considered that a majority of the members of the tribunal owed their position totally or partially to the then-still powerful PAN senator." Fernández de Cevallos led the PAN legal team in the electoral dispute.

Fernández de Cevallos had, over the past 18 months, become more relevant in national politics as Calderón opened up his tight inner circle to include figures such as Gómez-Mont - a result of the death of then-interior minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and electoral defeats.

It makes the disappearance of Fernández de Cevallos all the more mysterious.


pc said...

Pretty weird that Marc Lacey called him a friend, he's always seemed to know the country pretty well in my experience. Have you ever heard anything like that?

David Agren said...

There has been a history of bad blood between "Jefe Diego" and Felipe Calderón, but apparently that is in the past as Calderón called him, "A good friend," in late 2008.

Other panistas and observers I've spoken with don't describe them as close. What has happened is a thawing of relations between the Diego faction of the PAN and the party leadership - which has been under the control of Calderon's people.

My suspicion is that Calderón has needed Fernández de Cevallos for the latter's control of his significant PAN faction. (The Espino faction is still on the outs and the party has been divided.) The Gómez-Mont-"Jefe Diego" tag-team also brought pretty impressive track record of congressional negotiations from the latter half of the Salinas administration so that also counts for something.