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Mystery grows over missing Mexican politician

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The apparent abduction of a prominent ruling party politician is gripping Mexico, with many seeing his disappearance as an ominous sign that organized crime may be targeting the government.

Police stand outside the ranch of politician Diego Fernandez de Cevallos in Pedro Escobedo, in Mexico's state of Queretero, May 16, 2010. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, 69, an outspoken lawyer who was a presidential candidate in 1994 for the National Action Party, or PAN, disappeared near his ranch in central Mexico on Friday and there was still no clue as to his whereabouts three days later.

The attorney general’s office said it was unclear whether Fernandez de Cevallos had been kidnapped and his family had not received demands for ransom payments. It said traces of blood found near his abandoned car matched his blood type.

“There is nothing new for now,” a spokeswoman for the attorney general said. “Everything is exactly the same.”

President Felipe Calderon, in Spain for a summit meeting of European and Latin American leaders, called Fernandez de Cevallos a “close friend” and sent out a public message to him at a news conference.

“I want to send a message to all of you and to Diego Fernandez de Cevallos himself, if there is a way for him to know: his children are strong, they are firm and confronting this situation with great resolve and courage,” he said.

Kidnapping of corporate executives, public officials and ordinary citizens is rife in Mexico, and the government is locked in a deadly battle with drug trafficking cartels whose turf wars and clashes with security forces have killed 23,000 people since Calderon took power and deployed the army on them in 2006. Many kidnapping gangs are linked to the drug cartels.

Regional police chiefs, local politicians and in one case a U.S. anti-kidnap specialist have been murdered by drug hitmen, but to date high-profile political figures of the stature of Fernandez de Cevallos have largely been spared.

Currency traders said Fernandez de Cevallos’ abduction was rattling investors already concerned about financial stability in Europe, and the peso currency lost about 1 percent against the dollar.

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The case comes as Mexico heads into a swath of local elections that have already been threatened by drug gangs.

A PAN candidate for mayor of the town of Valle Hermosa, in the drug gang-plagued border state of Tamaulipas, was murdered last week. Both the PAN and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, say they are having trouble finding candidates to run for some posts in the state.

A PAN senator from the southern state of Yucatan, which held elections on Sunday, received a death threat referring to Fernandez de Cevallos, the daily Reforma reported.

“Stop accusing the boss or your head will roll ... just like Jefe Diego’s head rolled. We know where you and your family live, we’re not playing around,” read a text message received by the senator on Saturday, the paper said.

Calderon admits Mexico’s image has been tarred by its drug war but insists the government is making gains and can avoid the chaos that Colombia lived through in the 1980s, when drug lords attacked senior government officials and killed a presidential candidate.

Mexican kidnap cases tend to be handled by private security experts, avoiding bringing in the largely mistrusted police.

Fernandez de Cevallos, who sports a thick gray beard and is often dubbed “Jefe Diego” (Boss Diego), was a key figure in strengthening the PAN in the run up to it winning power in 2000, ending seven decades of one-party rule.

He has close ties to key government figures, such as Arturo Chavez who worked for his legal firm before becoming attorney general in 2009. Known for his cigar chomping and fiery style, he has slammed both leftist opponents and the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for 71 years.

Critics say that as a lawyer he inappropriately leveraged his political position to win settlements for big clients.

Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray