MEXICO CITY - A Mexican federal judge threw out genocide charges yesterday against former President Luis Echeverria in the deaths of dozens of students in 1971 because the statute of limitations has expired, federal prosecutors said.
The ruling by judge Cesar Flores is an enormous setback for Ignacio Carrillo, a special prosecutor appointed by President Vicente Fox in 2000 to investigate crimes against political dissidents more than 30 years ago.
Carrillo said the judge's decision was hasty and "didn't adequately evaluate each and every piece of evidence." Carrillo said he would appeal to the Supreme Court.
Echeverria, 82, who ruled from 1970 until 1976, was the first former president to face such serious charges and is viewed by many Mexicans as one of the country's most oppressive leaders.
The verdict was a victory for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, which had gathered a group of lawyers to defend one of its most prominent members. But human rights groups and analysts were disappointed and stunned.
"We aren't ruling out that there may have been some negotiation or pressure from the PRI," political analyst Miguel Angeles Granados Chapa said. "This issue is very delicate. Nothing like this has ever happened. Genocide is in our penal code, but it's never been used."
Hordes of reporters have been gathered outside Echeverria's mansion in southern Mexico for days, and he has not been seen since Tuesday. Echeverria's personal secretary, Jorge Nuno, said yesterday that Echeverria was "calm" and with his family.
Echeverria's attorney told journalists that "there was never any proof of genocide," but warned that the case wasn't over.
"It's not a closed case because surely the prosecutor will appeal. The Supreme Court can resolve it, and it will either drop the charges or order arrest warrants," said lawyer Juan Velasquez. "Mr. Echeverria has always been at home, ready to face charges, however indignant it would have been to go to jail."
Carrillo, head of the Special Prosecutor's Office for Political and Social Movements of the Past, asked Flores on Thursday night to issue arrest warrants for Echeverria and other top officials on genocide charges. He had presented the judge with nine boxes of evidence, which Flores began reading Friday morning. By law, Flores had 24 hours to make a decision.
The judge apparently agreed with the defense that genocide charges did not meet the penal code because of a 30-year statute of limitations on genocide that expired June 10, 2001.
"It's ridiculous to think of the incidents of June 10, 1971, as genocide - as Jews suffered under the Nazis," Velasquez said, adding that it wasn't a "massacre" but a confrontation.
On that day, about 9,000 students marched in downtown Mexico City in honor of hundreds of university students who were killed in the neighborhood of Tlatelolco during a 1968 protest against the government.
Carrillo and witnesses say a paramilitary group called the Falcons, created by Echeverria when he held the powerful post of interior minister, opened fire without provocation and killed more than 30 students. The event is called the Corpus Christi Massacre.
No one was ever charged in connection with the deaths.