MEXICO CITY — A former Mexican presidential candidate was freed Monday more than seven months after his kidnapping, telling reporters outside his Mexico City home that he is well and forgives his captors.
Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a top Mexican political power broker who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1994, gave no details about his abductors in what was the highest-profile and most brazen kidnapping in Mexico's recent history.
"As far as the kidnappers are concerned, as a man of faith I have forgiven (them)," he said, looking fit as he stood in a gray sweat shirt and pants outside his luxurious Mexico City home. "As a citizen, I think that the authorities have some work to do."
In a statement, President Felipe Calderon said he talked by telephone with Fernandez de Cevallos, 69, a leading member of Calderon's conservative National Action Party, expressing his joy at the release of his friend and promising to use the full force of the law to bring the kidnappers to justice.
The national party, known as PAN, issued a statement calling the seven-month kidnapping "a period of anguish and worry," and urging the government to investigate and punish those responsible "with the ultimate consequences."
Fernandez de Cevallos had been missing since May, when his vehicle was found near his ranch in the central state of Queretaro.
Photos purportedly released by kidnappers over the summer showed him gaunt, blindfolded and shirtless, raising fears about his condition. But the cigar-chomping politician appeared fit and feisty Monday, his signature beard longer and whiter than in the past.
After he spoke to reporters, he was greeted by a woman in the garage who hugged him and handed him a bouquet of roses. He later drove away in his own car.
Fernandez de Cevallos' abduction caught the country by surprise: Kidnappers are known to target the rich and powerful, but seldom power brokers of his level. Local news media reported in October that the family paid more than $20 million in ransom, though the family never confirmed that.
His imminent release was first announced by a previously unknown leftist group in statements posted on a blog Friday. Rebel groups kidnapped Mexican politicians and businessmen in the 1970s, both to get operating money and make a political point.
The statements by the Network for Global Transformation described Fernandez de Cevallos as a "corrupt, arrogant" influence-broker and said his kidnapping was "a blow against the plutocracy" and "an act of reparation."
In his brief comments to reporters, however, the politician did not identify his captors or their motives. Nor did he comment on whether any ransom had been paid.
"First I have to tell you that I thank God and the virgin for the help they gave me minute by minute during the past seven months," he said. "I'm strong and my life will continue the same."
There is little evidence that any of Mexico's tiny, splintered rebel groups could have pulled off the kidnapping, said Ruben Aguilar, who was a spokesman for leftist rebels in El Salvador before taking the same role with Mexico's conservative former president, Vicente Fox.
"This is clearly the work of a group of professionals, who knew how to negotiate, take things to the limit, deal with seven months of tension," Aguilar said. "I really don't see any serious indications that it was any leftist group ... they are small, fractured groups without any real operational capacity."
Known as "El Jefe Diego," or "Diego the Boss," the lawyer with the stentorian voice and trademark cigar emerged from relative obscurity during Mexico's first televised debate by presidential candidates in 1994, when he struck a chord with the middle class with calls to topple the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had held power since 1929.
He finished second to PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo that year, but his party finally won the presidency six years later when Fox was elected.
Fernandez de Cevallos' car was found with some belongings in it the morning of May 15. A night watchman told police he was supposed to have arrived at his ranch in the town of Pedro Escobedo the night before and never made it.
Five days later, photos of a blindfolded, grim-faced, bare-chested man resembling Fernandez de Cevallos appeared on Twitter. Two days after that, his family released a statement to the news media asking authorities to "stay out of this process in order to help the negotiation."
The Attorney General's Office said it had complied with that request, had not become involved in the case and would not comment on his release.
But the hands-off attitude may actually reflect well on Calderon's administration – even though abductors were able to snatch one of his party's leading lights.
"The fact that Diego has been released alive is going to be seen by the public as a success for the government," Aguilar said, "even though it appears that the government did nothing actively" to gain his release.