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A Cardinal Conspiracy

IT'S BEEN NINE YEARS SINCE HE WAS GUNNED DOWN, BUT TO MOST OF Mexico the smoke has yet to clear. Caught between the crossfire of two rival drug gangs, Guadalajara's Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas' killing has spawned a series of conspiracy theories that seem to have no end.

Citing new evidence, one of Mexico City's top prosecutors said last week on the anniversary of the cardinal's death that she had recently reopened the case. It had been closed for two years. To many observers, the new investigation is really just one more battle in a war between high-ranking officials in the Catholic Church and corrupt Mexican governments of the past.

The church, and its large conservative faction that includes Posadas' successor, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, has for years alleged that high-ranking officials in the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the once all-powerful party, and the former regime of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, plotted to have Posadas killed. They contend that the Salinas administration tried to cover up the case because it feared that the investigation would reveal the government's alleged ties with the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel.

On the other end, Jorge Carpizo, the former attorney general who handled the investigation during the Salinas administration, accuses the Catholic Church and the conservative Partido Alianza Nacional (PAN) -- President Vicente Fox's party -- of cooking up conspiracy theories to discredit him and the PRI. He alleges that the current deputy attorney general who reopened the case, Luz Lima Malvido, is a right-wing fanatic with ties to the church.

Last week, Carpizo distributed a video to the media that allegedly showed that Malvido approved of having a man tortured while under arrest. Malvido denied the allegations, saying that Carpizo and powerful interest groups were trying to discredit her investigation.

"This is really a fight between comadres," says Mexico City political columnist Francisco Rodriguez. "It's a soap opera."

THE POSADAS CASE EXEMPLIFIES THE political struggle between conservative elements of the Catholic Church and some PRI members and their sympathizers who are still in powerful positions, says Armando Moreno, a top PAN member who lives in Los Angeles. Both groups have strong ties to deep-pocket supporters and do not hesitate to use them to reach their main goal of empowering themselves. Though Mexico has long been considered one of the most Catholic countries in the world, the Mexican government under the 71-year reign of the PRI had little sympathy for the church. The Cristero War during the mid-1920s was a religious struggle between Catholic forces and government troops.

During the 1990s, things eased between both sides, Moreno says. And with the election of President Fox, who received the support of the conservative, Catholic-leaning PAN, many in the church savored what seemed like their road to political power after years of being shunned by the atheistic PRI.

During his presidential campaign, Fox pledged his support to the church and opposed proselytizing evangelical sects, which have been stealing converts from the Catholic Church, Moreno says. He also promised to help fight against abortion rights and to help them gain more access to the media.

"But Fox hasn't delivered," Moreno says. "The church thought that they were going to get some help from Fox, but that hasn't happened."

Fox seems to be straying away from the conservatives in the church just like he distanced himself from the PAN after he got that party's presidential nomination, Moreno says. He has betrayed both.

Many Catholics were disappointed last year when Fox married his former press aide, Martha Sahagun, after he failed to get the Vatican to annul his marriage to Lilian de La Concha, who also has strong ties to conservative elements of the church. Onesimo Cepeda, the bishop from Ecatepec, has now taken up the campaign to get the president's former marriage dissolved.

ESCALATING TENSIONS BETWEEN CARPIZO AND Iñiguez are documented in two recently published books: Carpizo's Assassination of a Cardinal and the church-approved Sangre de Mayo (Blood of May). Both have different takes on the death of Posadas.

In his book, Carpizo alleges that on May 24, 1993, the Arellano Felix brothers mistook the cardinal for Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, the head of the Guadalajara Cartel, as the prelate rolled up in his white Grand Marquis to a Guadalajara airport curb. It was the church, and not the government, which had drug ties, he claims.

According to Carpizo, in December 1993, then­Papal Nuncio Girolamo Prigione met with then-President Salinas and told him that Ramon Arellano Felix wanted to meet him, and that he was waiting at his church residence. The brothers wanted to assure the president in person that they had nothing to do with Posadas' death.

But Carpizo intervened and asked Salinas to avoid the meeting. Carpizo remembers telling him: "You cannot meet him. He is a fugitive from justice and is among the worst criminals."

Carpizo says that he did not move in to capture Arellano Felix because Prigione asked him to respect the diplomatic immunity of his residence and he also feared that it might be a trap. Prigione returned to Arellano Felix, telling him that the president was asking him to surrender.

Ramon was shot to death in February. His brother Benjamin was recently captured, but has refused to talk about the Posadas case.

Malvido, the deputy attorney general, says at least 1,000 pages are missing from the Posadas investigation files and accuses Carpizo of botching the case. Carpizo denies this.

While both sides trade barbs, most observers think that the Posadas case will continue to be the source of many conspiracy theories. But they don't think that it will ever be solved. Says Rodriguez, the political columnist: "It's like the Kennedy assassination."