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UNDERHANDED - AND OUT IN THE OPEN

Never before has the Mexican government's dirty laundry been so far out of the bin.

Every few weeks, it seems, newspapers report on a new plot of embezzlement or murder hatched in high office. The impression is that official corruption is spinning out of control.But while graft certainly continues to rage, analysts say it may not be on the rise. Instead, they say, as the nation inches toward democracy, more outspoken opposition parties and gutsier newspapers are putting once-secret scandals on front pages.

"The difference is that now these things actually become national scandals," said Fernando Estrada, a member of a conservative opposition party.

The ugly stories that made headlines this year include the February arrest of the brother of former President Carlos Salinas. The brother, currently in jail awaiting trial, was charged with masterminding the 1994 murder of a top leader of Salinas' own ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

One month later, former assistant attorney general Mario Ruiz Massieu fled Mexico after the government charged him with covering up Salinas' brother's alleged involvement in the killing. Now the former president himself is being investigated in the murder.

In August, the former president of Aerovias de Mexico said the Mexican airline illegally gave the ruling PRI $8 million to help it win the 1994 presidential elections.

Then last week, nine officials from the southern state of Guerrero were sacked for covering up the police massacre of 17 unarmed peasants.

"The rules of modern civilization are democracy, justice, legality, efficiency, honesty," wrote Samuel del Villar, once an adviser to former President Miguel de la Madrid.

"In Mexico, the rules are tyranny, injustice, illegality, inefficiency, irresponsibility, decadence," he wrote.

Corruption is so traditional that Mexicans assume all presidents and their Cabinets make off with millions of dollars from public coffers.

Salinas seems to be among the most mistrusted. He is currently the subject of an opposition party court suit that alleges he and his family made millions off the privatization of government businesses.

Private businesses often are pressured to make payoffs to the PRI, which awards them government contracts in response. During a 1993 dinner in Mexico City that included many of the nation's wealthiest, the PRI asked 30 billionaires to contribute $25 million each to the political party.

The high-level corruption has seeped to lower levels of society. Today, average Mexicans - everyone from housewives to street vendors - regularly ask for and pay bribes.