Mexico leader facing charges

Prosecutor seeks to arrest ex-president in genocide

Echeverria, others accused

Government forces killed students at 1971 protest

July 24, 2004|By Chris Kraul and Richard Boudreaux | Chris Kraul and Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MEXICO CITY - In Mexico's first effort to bring a former leader to justice for human rights abuses, a special prosecutor charged ex-President Luis Echeverria yesterday with responsibility for the deaths and disappearance of up to 280 people in the so-called Corpus Christi massacre 33 years ago.

A judge overseeing the case is expected to rule today on a request by the prosecutor, Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, to order the arrest of Echeverria, two former Cabinet ministers and the generals who commanded army units that fired on a leftist student protest march on June 10, 1971, in Mexico City.

The prosecutor handed the indictment to Judge Cesar Flores in a private meeting, then announced it at a cryptic news conference, avoiding any mention of the former president.

Echeverria's attorney, Juan Velasquez, acknowledged that his client had been named in the indictment, reportedly along with ex-Interior Minister Mario Moya Palencia and ex-Attorney General Julio Sanchez Vargas.

The judge could issue an arrest warrant, throw out the indictment for lack of evidence, or send the case back to the prosecutor for more work.

Yesterday's action was an unprecedented step, taken by Mexico's first democratically elected government, to hold a former leader accountable for atrocities. President Vicente Fox named Carrillo Prieto as special prosecutor in January 2002 to fulfill a campaign promise to go after the highest-level perpetrators of past misdeeds during the 71-year reign of the ousted Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Yet legal experts doubt that Echeverria, 82, will ever be brought to trial or face prison time because of his advanced age and the 33 years that have passed since the deaths. Even those backing Fox's action concede that the case against Echeverria appears weak, with no known evidence linking him directly to the killings.

People familiar with the prosecutor's case, which has never been spelled out publicly, say it relies heavily on documents proving that Echeverria set up the Falcons, the special army unit that carried out the 1971 killings, and received minute-by-minute reports on the events that day from the chief of his secret police.

Carrillo Prieto said yesterday that the charges in his indictment include genocide. He could not bring homicide charges because the statute of limitations had expired, but there is no such time limit for genocide - a crime, he once insisted, that encompasses systematic efforts to repress an entire sector of society, such as students.

Lawyers familiar with the case said the prosecutor's definition of genocide is untested in the Mexican courts.

Still, the mere possibility that an ex-president might end up behind bars was greeted by human rights advocates as a groundbreaking event.

"This is a good sign that the Fox government took such a difficult decision. It's a signal that the fight against impunity is a serious one and that the concept of accountability may be incorporated into the Mexican language," said Sergio Aguayo, a leading activist.

Any attempt to arrest Echeverria would touch off much controversy in a society still deeply divided over how to approach its violent past. Many view the case as a politically motivated effort that would only reopen old wounds. Mexico's defense secretary, Gen. Ricardo Vega, said the nation should pardon those responsible for the crimes of the past.

Deputy Attorney General Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos agreed, telling reporters Thursday that Mexico is "stuck in all aspects because we always revert to memory and never look toward the future."

Relatives of those killed in the 1971 massacre praised the prosecutor. Among them was Maria Salgado, who said she has been looking for her son, Alberto, ever since he disappeared the day 33 years ago when he marched in the Corpus Christi demonstration.

"What I hope for is that the prosecutors will really punish the ex-president and all those who ordered and participated in the massacre of that time," said Salgado, who demonstrated with others outside the special prosecutor's office.

Leaders of the PRI, whose long rule ended with Fox's election in 2000, have said in recent days that Echeverria's arrest would end any hope of cooperation between their party and the president during the two years remaining of his term.

Fox has made a special case of Echeverria. During a campaign speech in 2000, Fox said: "Echeverria is not my friend. He is responsible for starting all the disgraces of this country."

The Corpus Christi massacre, named for the feast day occurring 60 days after Easter, took place as about 10,000 protesters, mainly students, marched near Mexico City's National Polytechnic Institute to call on the government to dedicate more funds to education.

Truckloads of Falcons, members of special army units clad in white shirts and trained by the Mexican government to quash student demonstrations, swung truncheons and opened fire on marchers as police stood by. The death toll was first put at 25 but was raised by the special prosecutor to 80. In addition about 200 people were arrested who were never seen alive again, he said.

Echeverria has denied ordering the shootings - one of the signal events of Mexican government's "dirty war" on dissidents and guerrilla groups in the 1970s and 1980s.

Echeverria was president from 1970 to 1976, at the height of the PRI's power, when many of the killings and disappearances occurred.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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