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New Genocide Charges Planned in Mexico

Despite Setback in Case Against Echeverria, Prosecutor Targeting 30 Ex-Officials

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A17

MEXICO CITY, Sept. 1 -- The special prosecutor investigating government human rights abuses during the period known in Mexico as the "dirty war" said he planned to charge 30 former civilian and military leaders with genocide, despite legal setbacks in his unprecedented effort to bring the same charge against former president Luis Echeverria.

Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, speaking in an interview Tuesday, defended his attempt to hold former political leaders accountable for deaths and disappearances during a campaign of repression against students and other activists from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto says he faces powerful opposition to exploring abuses. (Jaime Puebla -- AP)

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The special prosecutor has faced criticism since July, when he asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant for Echeverria, 82, who was president from 1970 to 1976. He also sought warrants against 11 other former top officials, accusing them of genocide in connection with a 1971 massacre in which about 30 student protesters in Mexico City were killed by security forces.

Carrillo Prieto did not say when he would bring genocide charges against the 30 other former officials, but he said his office had evidence linking them to about 200 deaths and disappearances.

"This war is long and complicated, but we have to go forward," Carrillo Prieto said.

He also called on President Vicente Fox to rally support for the prosecutions, despite powerful political opposition to confronting Mexico's past. Although Fox has backed his efforts, Carrillo Prieto said the president has not made the investigations a top priority. Fox did not, for example, provide funding to exhume suspected mass graves in the southern state of Guerrero, he said.

"If there's not the priority, the will doesn't matter," said Carrillo Prieto, a former law professor who was appointed by Fox in January 2002. He said he planned to meet with the president next week. "If there's not a positive response, I'm going to say, 'Mr. President, what's this about?' "

Carrillo Prieto said his reading of international law defines genocide as the systematic attempt to eliminate any ethnic, religious or national group. Prosecutors examining human rights crimes in Yugoslavia and Argentina have concluded that such groups could also include political dissidents, Carrillo Prieto said. He has accused Echeverria of using the state's military and police powers to try to systematically "exterminate" Mexican political dissidents, which Echeverria has denied.

Less than 24 hours after he applied for the warrants against Echeverria and the 11 others, the judge turned him down, ruling that the country's 30-year statute of limitations on genocide had expired. Carrillo Prieto argued that official investigations into the massacre remained open until 1982, so the 30-year time frame should start then and not expire until 2012.

The attorney general, for whom Carrillo Prieto works, appealed the judge's decision to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule soon on whether it will consider the appeal.

Carrillo Prieto said he was not discouraged by the judge's ruling; he said he had expected it.

He said further that he faces powerful opposition to exploring the abuses, which took place during the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which controlled the government from 1929 to 2000. For many Mexicans, the judge's swift ruling was proof that Mexico's powerful political establishment and weak judicial system were unwilling to fully investigate abuses that occurred during the PRI era, when presidents governed with nearly dictatorial authority.

"We've made advances, but we're not satisfied, and we shouldn't be," Carrillo Prieto said. "What doesn't help, though, is when people say, 'It's not worth it.' The worst thing people can do now is lose hope."

Many critics have complained that Carrillo Prieto overreached by accusing Echeverria of genocide, a charge that could be difficult to prove and might even allow the extremely unpopular former president to escape prosecution. Carrillo Prieto defended his decisions in the case. "Even if there were better possibilities with lesser charges, the important thing is to state the legal and historical truth of the matter -- Mexicans deserve that," he said. "This involves homicides that constitute genocide." It is "ridiculous," he said, to have a statute of limitations on genocide.

In related cases, the special prosecutor's office has obtained arrest warrants for eight individuals: One died, six are fugitives, and Miguel Nazar Haro, one of the top internal security officials from the dirty war era, is in jail. Carrillo Prieto said he would ask a judge Friday to issue an arrest warrant against another top state government official, but he declined to identify that person.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company