Former Mexican Presidential Candidate Missing: Kidnapping By Drug Cartels Feared

Diego Fernández de Cevallos

MEXICO CITY—Mexican authorities scrambled over the weekend to locate Diego Fernández de Cevallos, a former presidential candidate and wealthy lawyer whose disappearance is the most high profile apparent kidnapping since 2006.

Mr. Fernández, who ran for president with the National Action Party, or PAN, in 1994, disappeared Friday night in the central state of Querétaro, officials from the attorney general’s office said.

His car was found abandoned with bloody footprints nearby. The officials said on Sunday they had no knowledge about who might have kidnapped him.

Mr. Fernández, 69 years old, is one of Mexico’s most-recognized political figures, and the news of his apparent kidnapping shook Mexicans.

Politicians of all stripes denounced the disappearance and Mr. Calderón, a member of Mr. Fernández’s party, ordered his cabinet on Saturday to help search for him.

Mr. Fernández’s disappearance could have major consequences for Mexico, further destabilizing a country where more than 23,000 have died since 2006.

If guerrilla groups are responsible, it could reignite fears of other armed separatist groups advocating the government’s overthrow at a time when the government is struggling against organized crime.

Since the spike in drug violence, many of the kidnappings in the country have been the work of drug-related criminal organizations—but never has the target been such an icon.

If Mr. Fernández was kidnapped by a drug cartel, it might indicate the groups were looking beyond the usual targets of local political and business rivals and are launching more direct and defiant challenges toward the national government.

Mexico has long feared the type of political terrorism that became the hallmark of drug wars in Colombia.“This strikes me as a cartel trying to show [it] can act with impunity,” says George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary who studies politics and organized crime. “[Mr. Fernández] is the highest-profile figure who has been involved in a possible kidnapping and death. He was the poster boy for the PAN.”

Indeed, crime organizations already appear to be launching smaller-scale political attacks around the border ahead of coming elections.

Last Thursday, gunmen broke into the home of Jose Mario Guajardo Valera, a mayoral candidate in the northern town of Valle Hermosa, killing him and his son, after Mr. Guajardo Valera ignored warnings to end his campaign.

Other attacks have left Mr. Calderón’s PAN and the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party unable to even field candidates in three towns in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

The violence did not let up this weekend. In the northern town of Torreón, hit men burst into a bar killing eight people. Four decapitated bodies were later found. In Ciudad Juárez, another eight people were found dead, believed to be linked to drug organizations.

The kidnapping could be the work of one such separatist guerrilla group, the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, Mr. Islas and other analysts said, which has kidnapped several high profile business leaders in the past.

The small and shadowy group, which dates back to the 1970s, had been largely dormant until it re-emerged in 2007. Then, it twice blew up gas pipelines and caused $1.6 billion in damages, in an attempt to force the government to hand over two of its leaders.

Between 1988 and 2007, the EPR and its predecessor groups have carried out more than 30 kidnappings—which it calls “acts of expropriation”—and amassed $73 million, according to Mexican intelligence documents.

In 1993 it kidnapped several Mexican plutocrats including Alfredo Harp Helú, who at the time was co-owner of the country’s biggest bank, Banamex.

Mr. Harp was freed after four months in captivity when his family paid $25 million, according to ledgers discovered in a police raid.

Known as “El Jefe Diego,” or “Diego the Boss,” Mr. Fernández is a colorful and controversial figure in Mexican politics. He took the national stage by storm in the 1994 campaign by handily winning the country’s first televised presidential debates, using colorful and blunt language to blast the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and its candidate, Ernesto Zedillo.

But once in the lead, the cigar-chomping lawyer largely stopped campaigning during the home stretch of the race, fueling suspicions that he somehow threw the race for Mr. Zedillo, who became the PRI’s last president.

Police Search Residence of Diego Fernández de Cevallos

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