Former Mexico official steers KDNA

GRANGER -- Long and winding are the roads that led former Mexico Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar to supervise Radio KDNA in the Lower Yakima Valley.

"In terms of stress on the job, it's a world of difference," Madrazo said. "As attorney general, I didn't know if my enemy was in front of me or behind me. I didn't know who was ready to betray me."

Madrazo, 58, landed in Seattle as the Mexican consul in 2001 following four years as his nation's chief prosecutor. Six years later he became vice president of community relations for Sea Mar Community Health Centers, the Seattle-based nonprofit agency that purchased the Spanish-language public radio station last month.

With the polished look and patient demeanor of a longtime statesman, Madrazo is reaching out in the Yakima Valley to learn how the station -- which tabs itself "the voice of the farm worker" -- can better serve its mostly immigrant audience.

Those who deal with him along the way will meet one of the more unusual figures to establish himself in public life here -- a man remembered in his home country as much for his accomplishments as for the controversies that occurred under the president he served, Ernesto Zedillo.

"The only position worse than being the attorney general is being the former attorney general," Madrazo said. "Everything is your fault."

Madrazo studied law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and became an attorney in 1977. In the 1980s he continued to study, working his way onto the university's law faculty before being appointed to the national Commission on Human Rights in 1990. He served as commission chairman from 1993 until his appointment as attorney general in December 1996.

Madrazo said he took an interest in human rights from the earliest days of his career. He said helping the poor and the voiceless was just "part of my vocation."

"It's the way my thoughts have always worked," he said. "I want to protect basic rights."

But Madrazo's dedication to those principles was tested early in his tenure as attorney general. In December 1997, a paramilitary group in the southern state of Chiapas attacked and killed a church gathering of pacifist sympathizers to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which rose to prominence because of protests against the government's signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Nearly all of the 45 victims were women and children. To this day, relatives of the victims argue that President Zedillo was involved or complicit in the massacre.

The investigation and prosecution of the attackers fell to Madrazo, who was on vacation in Acapulco the day of the massacre. He quickly sent his deputy attorney general to the town to begin the investigation, which led to the indictment of 100 individuals as suspects.

"It was a nightmare," Madrazo said. "Very painful, very difficult to investigate."

Thirty-five of those indicted are serving time in Mexican prisons, but as of last October more than 60 others previously convicted had been freed by judges who found irregularities in the prosecutions for the slayings. On Sept. 16, 10 unnamed relatives of the victims filed a lawsuit against Zedillo in Connecticut -- where he now resides as a Yale University professor -- for human rights violations.

Zedillo called the allegations, which seek more than $10 million in damages, as "totally groundless and obviously false," according to an Associated Press report. Madrazo agreed, adding that he left the investigation open after he left office but no new conclusions have been drawn by his successors.

As someone who decided early in life to fight for human rights, Madrazo is still shadowed 14 years later by the massacre and its aftermath.

"It's the price we have to pay to serve Mexico," Madrazo said. "I have been paying that price for a long time."

He said he was ready to return to Mexico after 2006 but was moved by impassioned requests from Sea Mar representatives to stay in the area and continue to help the immigrant community.

He wants to engage people of different colors and nationalities to bridge the gap between cultures in the Yakima Valley, and to tailor Radio KDNA to be a part of the solution.

"The mainstream does not understand our culture, but the Mexican-American community should be ready to understand their new culture as well," Madrazo said. "The U.S. needs immigrants, and I think we should work together."

Madrazo plans to organize meetings with community leaders and invite residents to offer ideas on the station's direction in the coming weeks and months. Sea Mar, which runs about 50 medical, behavioral health and dental centers in the Puget Sound area, bought the radio station following two years of financial struggle and labor disputes at KDNA.

Now that Madrazo has arrived, he hopes to push the reset button and get the staff and listeners on board for a new direction. He can't yet say how frequent his trips to the Lower Valley from the west side will be, but wants to visit "as often as possible."

He said Sea Mar's goal is to educate the immigrant community on everything from issues of health to learning English and preparing for citizenship exams.

Sea Mar also operates El Rey 1360, a Seattle-area Spanish-language radio station.

Being a lawyer and not at all a broadcaster, Madrazo said his role is to analyze the finances, structure and reach of Radio KDNA to make it more viable and in tune with the needs of listeners. He will work closely with station director Amelia Ramon.

That's why he said he wants input, and lots of it, from regular people on the future of Sea Mar's latest venture.

"This is a radio station that belongs to this community," Madrazo said.