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Many hope `golden couple' will help improve U.S.-Mexico relations

MEXICO CITY—One is Mexico's wealthiest woman. The other is the ambassador of the world's most powerful country. Together, they form a union so powerful that many here believe it will change U.S.-Mexico relations for the better.

U.S. Ambassador Antonio "Tony" Garza, 45, and beer heiress Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala Laguerri, 42, are tying the knot.

The media here calls them the "golden couple," and the news of their engagement last month, just days after Garza had angered Mexican officials by issuing a letter warning Americans about violence in Mexican border cities, was greeted with astonishment.

Few people here claim to have known that the ambassador was courting Aramburuzabala, whose last name is so long she sometimes signs it A14 for the number of letters in it. News of the relationship was first broken by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, which said it found the couple's names on a list of people seeking permission to wed at the Roman Catholic Church Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles in the city of Naucaulpan, in the state of Mexico.

Details, however, remain slim. The couple was first noticed together in November at a gathering at Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts, and they'd been seen occasionally since at various parties. The U.S. embassy hasn't responded to requests for information on where or how they met.

But the relationship is invariably seen through the prism of U.S.-Mexican relations, which often are as tense as, well, a married couple who disagrees but must stay together for the children.

"If he couldn't make our nations fall in love ... it looks like he achieved it," El Universal wrote of Garza.

Attention is nothing new for Aramburuzabala, a strikingly attractive woman from Monterrey in northern Mexico whom Fortune magazine described in 2003 as the 13th most powerful woman in international business.

Her personal wealth is estimated at $1.5 billion, most of it from her holdings in the giant Grupo Modelo conglomerate, which makes Corona and Negra Modelo beers and is a major shareholder in Televisa, Mexico's largest television and media conglomerate.

Her grandfather, Felix Aramburuzabala Lazcano-Iturburu from the Basque region of Spain, was one of Modelo's founders. When he died in 1972, he left the business to his son and her father, Pablo Aramburuzabala Ocarranza, who died in 1995. At the time, Aramburuzabala was a vice president of the corporation, with an accounting degree from the prestigious Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico in Monterrey. She's now the corporation's vice chairman and an active member of its management.

"It's important to me not to feel like a useless woman who inherited money and sits on a couch eating popcorn," she told the Wall Street Journal in 2001.

Garza's roots are more modest. He's a second-generation American, his grandparents having moved to Brownsville, Texas, from Matamoros, Mexico. His father owned a Texaco service station in Brownsville, where Garza was born.

Garza graduated from Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas, then entered politics in 1988 at age 28. He successfully ran for county judge, the top elected position, in Cameron County, where Brownsville is located.

In 1994 he ran for Texas attorney general but lost. He then became a campaign adviser in George W. Bush's 1994 gubernatorial race. After winning, Bush appointed Garza Texas secretary of state. In 1998 he was elected Texas railroad commissioner, the first Hispanic Republican elected to statewide office in Texas.

President Bush named Garza U.S. ambassador to Mexico in November 2002.

Garza's tenure has been marked by controversy. Mexican President Vicente Fox accused him of meddling in Mexico's affairs after Garza backed a U.S. State Department advisory warning Americans about traveling in Mexican border cities, where 27 Americans were kidnapped in the last six months. Garza criticized the Mexican government's "inability to come to grips" with organized crime.

At the time, Garza and Aramburuzabala's relationship was unpublicized.

One link the two have is art. Aramburuzabala's mother is Lucrecia Larregui, a painter and philanthropist. Garza is an avid art collector who's acquired works of major Mexican painters, including Rufino Tamayo.

One question unanswered is whether the Roman Catholic Church will agree to the marriage. Aramburuzabala was married for 15 years to a businessman who is the father of her two sons, Pablo and Santiago. The couple divorced, but it's not known if the church has granted an annulment. Catholic doctrine doesn't recognize the remarriage of divorced people.

Other questions have been raised: Will Garza help run her business? Will he run for Texas governor, as has long been speculated? When will the couple wed?

And of course there are many expressions of hope that the couple can help the sometimes testy relationship between Mexico and the United States.

"Finally something agreeable, beautiful, but more than anything romantic. Hallelujah!" wrote society columnist Guadalupe Loeza in Tuesday's daily Reforma. "Two neighbors that often have problems. Well ... now love will unite them."

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-GARZA

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