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DallasNews.com | News for Dallas, Texas | World: Mexico

DallasNews.com | News for Dallas, Texas | World: Mexico
Ex-Mexican president may be charged

Judge weighing warrant for arrest in '71 killings of student protesters


10:12 PM CDT on Friday, July 23, 2004


By LAURENCE ILIFF and RICARDO SANDOVAL / The Dallas Morning News



MEXICO CITY – A federal judge was deliberating late Friday whether to charge former President Luis Echeverría with genocide in connection with the 1971 killings of dozens of student protesters during the Mexican government's "dirty war" against opponents.

Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto asked Judge César Flores late Thursday to issue an arrest warrant for Mr. Echeverría, who was president from 1970 to 1976. If the judge complies, it would be the first time a Mexican president is charged with a crime.

Mr. Carrillo Prieto sought the charges against Mr. Echeverría, former Interior Minister Mario Moya Palencia and former Attorney General Julio Sánchez Vargas for their roles in what is known as the "Corpus Cristo Thursday" massacre of demonstrators by police and the military.

The case has gnawed at Mexicans for decades, with some citizens demanding that the perpetrators be punished and others insisting the tragedy was too divisive and should be consigned to the history books.

Mr. Echeverría could not be reached for comment late Friday. The 82-year-old former president has been ailing for some time. Military guards at his home in southern Mexico City said he was not there.

In an earlier interview with Belo Television, Mr. Echeverría was asked if he bore any guilt for the killings.

"Not in the least," he said, adding that he was "outside of the storm" surrounding the matter.

"There is a superficial tendency to judge people, circumstances, contexts," Mr. Echeverría said. "At certain levels, we cannot simplify."

A spokesman for President Vicente Fox said he had no comment. In 2000, Mr. Fox became the first president from an opposition party, the National Action Party, or PAN, defeating the candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. PRI members, including Mr. Echeverría, had held the presidency for 71 years before that.

Roberto Madrazo, national director of the PRI, questioned the motives of the Fox administration.

"The so-called dirty war is a smokescreen by the government that seeks to return us to the past and that places at risk the existence of our institutions and therefore the state itself," he said.

Juan Velázquez, attorney for Mr. Echeverría and his former Cabinet members, emerged from a meeting with Judge Flores on Friday afternoon and said he had spent an hour presenting a defense. That defense included the argument that the statute of limitations had expired on all the crimes mentioned.

"The only thing left to do is to wait until Saturday when the judge announces his ruling," Mr. Velázquez told reporters.

Mexico's Supreme Court ruled recently that the crime of arbitrary detention may be pursued if the victim has not been found, based on the argument that the crime could be of a continuing nature and therefore the statute of limitations does not apply.

But the ruling did not address the issue of whether "genocide" is subject to the statute of limitations. Mexican authorities have argued that the country is subject to international treaties that stipulate there is no statute of limitations for genocide.

In presenting his case to Judge Flores, Prosecutor Carrillo Prieto delivered nine boxes of papers he said document the crime of genocide against a dozen former government and military officials, including Mr. Echeverría.

The massacre at the heart of Mr. Carrillo Prieto's investigation occurred on June 10, 1971, when protesting college students were intercepted en route to Mexico City's ceremonial square, the Zócalo, by a paramilitary squad.

The squadopened fire on the students, witnesses said, killing between 30 and 70 of them. Dozens were injured and arrested.

In 1968, a similar massacre of mostly student protesters at Mexico City's Tlatelolco plaza left 52 dead, according to official numbers. Rights activists said hundreds were killed and "disappeared."

The action that Mr. Carrillo Prieto brought against Mr. Echeverría and his colleagues was filed on behalf of Jesús Martín del Campo, whose brother was killed in the 1971 confrontation.

Given the complexity of the case, some analysts said it probably would have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

"There are too many judicial barriers to cleanly decide this," said Carlos Humberto Toledo, a legal and military analyst in Mexico City. Mr. Toledo said he is concerned that the special prosecutor may not have enough evidence to make a case against Mr. Echeverría.

"Apart from the question of statutes of limitations, it is difficult to see 'genocide' as a successful accusation," Mr. Toledo said. "What happened in Chile or in Argentina represent different circumstances where there was a systematic attempt to eliminate whole groups of people over several years.

"In Mexico, these events happened on two single days and as a reaction against perceived threats to the state."

Other analysts said, however, that to focus on whether the government can make a case is to lose sight of the bigger picture.

"Regardless of the merits of the case, what's important here is the message President Fox is sending: He's serious about attacking impunity," said Sergio Aguayo, a professor at the College of Mexico and a student rights activist in the 1960s and '70s. "You have to applaud Fox for going forward with this even though ... Echeverría will not see the inside of a jail. But at least he and others responsible will get the message: The days of impunity are over."

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