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Investigators Probe Mexico's Covert "Dirty War"

by Diego Cevallos

About 600 disappeared in police custody
(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Testimonies are being compiled on the so-called "dirty war" waged in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s.

The stories of assassinations, disappearances and torture form part of the accusations against past administrations of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which maintained its grip on political power for 71 years -- until last year.

In the 1970s and 1980s, approximately 600 people were detained-disappeared by government agents.

If the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) keeps its promise, the Mexican public will receive in October a report on the fates of 482 people, most of them members of leftist political parties or guerrilla groups.

It was not until the PRI lost the presidential elections last year that charges of atrocities attributed to the governments of Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) and Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) were acknowledged publicly.

Mexicans are beginning to see the other face of governments that, at the time, claimed to be "revolutionary," defending Cuba's socialist government in international forums, speaking out in favor of self-determination, and opening Mexico's doors to politicians and guerrillas who were persecuted in their own countries.

The number of people detained-disappeared in Mexico by the end of the 1980s totalled more than 600, according to several studies, but attention today is focussed on 482 cases because related evidence is now available from the once-impenetrable official archives.

President Vicente Fox, the first non-PRI president in the last seven decades, has yet to decide if his administration will set up a Truth Commission to dig into the nation's past, as he had promised during his electoral campaign.

However, he did agree to partially open the intelligence service's files for examination by experts of the CNDH, which is state-funded but operates independently.

CNDH chief Jose Luis Soberanes has pledged to provide a "serious and professional" report about the individuals who were detained-disappeared, but emphasized that it is up to the government to decide whether or not it will create a public prosecutor's office or commission to determine who was responsible for the crimes, and if the matter merits a more in-depth investigation.

Soberanes commented that there is a great deal of "filler" in the official archives and that they do not hold all the answers. But, he said, by cross-referencing the files with information provided by the victims' relatives and other documents, one is able to infer the fate of the disappeared.

Rise of brutality in the 1970s
It is generally acknowledged that a "dirty war" was unleashed in Mexico in 1965 after an armed peasant group attacked a military barracks in the northern state of Chihuahua to protest land grabs and repression by ranchers and large landowners against the local peasant farmers.

Following the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which an unknown number of university students where killed in the city's main plaza during a demonstration for democratic reforms, there were increased attempts to organize guerrilla movements. Government-led repression intensified as well.

During the PRI's 71-year rule, its power expanded to the point that it controlled nearly all social and labor organizations and the communications media. The party machinery was even able to co-opt groups of former guerrillas, both local and foreign.

Repression and human rights violations gathered force following the 1968 student protests.

Then-president Gustavo Dias Ordaz (1964-1970) justified the military and police actions maintaining that the social movements questioning the political system were part of a plot drawn up by extremist Marxist groups that sought to take over the government, according to historian Enrique Krauze.

In Mexico, inspired by the 1959 triumph of the Fidel Castro-led guerrillas in Cuba, insurgent movements were formed here in the late 1960s with a strong rural presence. These included the Party of the Poor, headed by professor Lucio Cabanas, and the National Revolutionary Civic Association, led by another professor, Genaro Vazquez.

Other, less powerful movements followed and were essentially urban, such as the Zapatista Urban Front, Union of the People, Revolutionary Student Committee of Monterrey, Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People, the September 23 League and the National Liberation Front.

"The guerrilla furor of the 1970s brought with it a rise in the belligerence and barbarity of the state armed apparatus, with its systems of espionage, infiltration, brutality, torture, assassination and disappearances," said historian Jose Agustin.

Rosario Ibarra, whose son was arrested and disappeared in 1975 when he was a member of the September 23 League, asserts that the government forces behaved just like those of the South American military dictatorships in perpetrating human rights abuses against their own citizens.

In order to obtain information about Ibarra's son, the police arrested her husband. "They put him in a drum and they urinated on him, the scoundrels. They nearly asphyxiated him. And with a blow from a knee they broke his spine." The police held him for 72 hours and they nearly killed him, she said.

Mexico was experiencing an era of fascism, she asserts.

Unlike other Latin American countries that were under military dictatorships, in Mexico the PRI governed, and in the eyes of the rest of the world it was not a politically repressive system, which undermined the force of claims that people were being "disappeared," said historian Krauze.

Furthermore, Mexico was the only country in Latin America that did not break off diplomatic relations with Cuba when that country declared itself a socialist nation. Mexico was also one of the countries that provided greatest support to the Non-Aligned Nations and to the proposals for a new economic world order.

Alberto Hijar, a university professor of philosophy who was arrested and tortured during that era for promoting "subversive" ideas among his students, emphasized that the 1970s "were times of violent repression targeted against young people, just because they had a different political stance."

The government of Cuba, which supported the creation of guerrilla groups in several Latin American countries, says it never did so in Mexico because of the loyalty and respect the PRI government had shown the Caribbean island's revolution.

However, Cuban Daniel Alarcon, alias Benigno, who accompanied Argentine guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara in his revolutionary efforts in Africa and Bolivia, asserts that numerous Mexican insurgent groups trained in Cuba in 1971 and 1972 and also in 1982.

Evidence seems to indicate that the Castro government itself informed Mexico about these movements, in a double-cross that helped the PRI governments quickly infiltrate the rebel groups, according to some analysts.

Today, after decades of controlling Mexico's political arena, the dark past of the PRI is emerging with renewed denunciations and clamoring for the punishment of the repressive agents, while the CDNH investigation promises to provide "the first panoramic photograph of the dirty war" of the 1970s and 1980s.

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Albion Monitor July 23, 2001 (

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