November 25, 1995 in Nation/World

The $84 Million Account Swiss Arrest The Sister-In-Law Of Mexico’s Ex-President When She Tries To Make A Withdrawal

Andres Oppenheimer Miami Herald

Mexicans were shaking their heads in amazement Friday after hearing that former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s sister-in-law was arrested in Switzerland when she tried to draw funds from a bank account that even by Mexico’s corruption standards looked obscene - $84 million.

Paulina Castanon, wife of the former president’s brother, Raul Salinas de Gortari, was detained by Swiss authorities in Geneva on Nov. 15 when she tried to transfer the funds from an account her husband was keeping under a phony name, the Mexican attorney general’s office said in a communique.

Swiss authorities confirmed the announcement Friday and said the investigation, carried out in cooperation with the U.S. and Mexican governments, is linked to suspicions of drug money laundering. Raul Salinas is in jail in Mexico, where he was arrested early this year on charges of masterminding the murder of a top ruling party official.

“These are stratospheric numbers,” said Fernando Estrada, a politician with the opposition National Action Party. “It opens all kinds of questions on how a mid-level official could have amassed so much money on his government salary.”

In addition to the Swiss bank account, Raul Salinas had 39 declared real estate properties in Mexico, of which about half were purchased during the nine years when he held various mid-level government jobs. Officials say his highest-paid government job was worth $180,000 a year.

In the early 1990s, he had served as manager of a government food distribution program, while acting as his brother’s behind-the-scenes adviser. Raul was President Salinas’ “most trusted man” to carry out sensitive missions at home and abroad, a former Salinas Cabinet minister said in a recent interview.

This was the second time this year that Mexicans got a glimpse into some of their government officials’ secret bank accounts. Mexico has long been described as an authoritarian democracy where the ruling elite amass enormous riches, but rarely had government officials’ bank savings been so publicly exposed.

Earlier this year, when U.S. agents arrested a former government prosecutor for failing to declare $40,000 in cash he was carrying with him when arriving in the United States, court papers revealed that he had made deposits totaling $7 million in a Texas bank over an eight-month period last year. The official, Mario Ruiz Massieu, had a salary of $70,000 a year.

“This may be the tip of the iceberg,” said Graco Ramirez, a congressman for the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution, referring to the latest investigation into the Salinas family financial dealings. “It confirms the massive corruption in the Salinas government, and it may lead to (former President) Salinas himself.”

Mexican opposition leaders and independent political columnists say Carlos Salinas amassed a fortune while in office. They demand the former president, who is in self-imposed exile and has reportedly been seen recently in Montreal, New York and Havana, be subpoenaed and questioned in connection with various crimes.

Until now, the key questions about Carlos Salinas revolved around whether he knew of his brother’s alleged role in the killing of a top official of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. President Ernesto Zedillo, a former education minister who was handpicked by Salinas, is under pressure from government critics to extradite his former boss.

Salinas became a darling of the U.S. foreign policy establishment after he opened Mexico’s economy and championed a free trade deal with the United States.

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