MEXICO CITY, JUNE 6 -- Faced with what critics charge is a worsening human rights situation in Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari created a national commission today aimed at curbing abuses and promoting greater respect for rights.
In an elaborate ceremony at the National Palace attended by cabinet ministers, state governors, congressional leaders and the diplomatic corps, Salinas announced the formation of a National Commission of Human Rights as a semi-autonomous agency under the Interior Secretariat, which is responsible for internal security in Mexico.
Named as president of the commission was Jorge Carpizo, chief justice of the Mexican Supreme Court. Several leading writers and intellectuals were appointed as commission members, including novelist Carlos Fuentes and literary magazine editor Hector Aguilar Camin.
A presidential decree said the commission reflected the government's policy of establishing "a modern democratic state" in which "political pluralism" and individual rights were protected. "The defense of human rights is essential for modernization," Salinas told the assembled dignitaries.
Independent human rights activists characterized the new commission as essentially a response to pressure and criticism over what they described as escalating abuses.
"It's a recognition that the human rights situation in this country is very bad and is rapidly deteriorating," said Mariclaire Acosta, president of the nongovernmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. While the commission apparently will be more autonomous than an existing human rights department in the Interior Secretariat, she said, it still appears to lack vital powers.
The decree said the commission would keep the president informed of the human rights situation, coordinate with international rights groups and make recommendations to local authorities, but it did not mention any investigative or prosecutorial authority.
According to Acosta, only one political disappearance has been documented since Salinas took office in December 1988 -- that of Jose Ramon Garcia, an organizer in the town of Morelos for leftist political leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. However, she said, more than 500 cases of disappearances dating from the 1970s remain unsolved, and the number of political killings has risen sharply in recent years.
In its latest report, the independent human rights commission documented 168 killings between July 1988 and February 1990 that it said were politically motivated. Most involved land disputes between peasants and powerful rural bosses generally affiliated with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
In January, Cardenas's Democratic Revolutionary Party charged that 56 of its members had died in political violence since Cardenas launched an unsuccessful presidential campaign in mid-1988. The party said most were killed in violence related to election fraud, including 16 persons who died in incidents surrounding fiercely contested local elections in December in the states of Michoacan and Guerrero.
The party accused the government of waging a "dirty war" and charged that failure to solve the killings amounted to "immunity" for the perpetrators.
The PRI, which has held power in Mexico for more than 60 years, has denied responsibility for the deaths.
In one of the most controversial cases described by human rights groups as a political killing, gunmen in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan in northern Mexico last month shot to death Norma Corona, a prominent human rights activist and law professor, who had publicly accused the Federal Judicial Police of abuses.
In his speech today, Salinas expressed indignation over the killing of Corona, calling it "an aberrant crime that cannot remain unpunished." He called on the new commission to "concentrate its attention" on the case.