The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Luis Echeverría, Mexican politician with tarnished legacy, dies at 100

As Mexico’s top law enforcement official, he was indicted on genocide charges for his role in a massacre. As president, he led a ‘dirty war’ against opponents.

Luis Echeverría in 1969. (Anonymous/AP)
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Luis Echeverría, who as Mexico’s top law enforcement official was indicted on genocide charges for his role in a 1968 student massacre, then later as president presided over a severe economic crisis and a violent “dirty war” against government opponents, died July 8 at his home in Cuernavaca, according to Mexican media reports. He was 100.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed the death in official statements. The cause was not disclosed.

The October 1968 clash between federal troops and student protesters, which occurred days before the Olympic Games began in Mexico City, received international condemnation and became a defining moment in modern Mexican history. The killings also brought Mr. Echeverría a tarnished legacy that continued far beyond his troubled presidency from 1970 to 1976.

Mr. Echeverría was “a failed, tragic figure in Mexican history,” Kate Doyle, a Latin America human rights scholar with the Washington-based National Security Archive, said in an interview. “He contained the possibility of modernity, the possibility of openness, the possibility of youth, of some kind of forward thinking. And he was ultimately destroyed by his inability to see beyond, or his inability to rescue himself from, the political apparatus that created him.”

Mr. Echeverría advanced rapidly in Mexico’s ruling party, the PRI, after marrying into the family of a political boss. In 1964, when he was 42, he became secretary of the interior under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

The powerful job gave Mr. Echeverría control over Mexico’s police and law enforcement apparatus at a time when the government was leading crackdowns on students demanding reforms. Despite huge increases in economic growth since the late 1950s, little had been done to improve the plight of the vast Mexican peasantry.

In October 1968, federal troops gunned down dozens of protesters in the capital’s Tlatelolco square and jailed many more. Hundreds of citizens were wounded.

Mr. Echeverría’s precise role is still unknown, as is the exact number of dead, but much of the blame fell on him and Díaz Ordaz. At the time, Mr. Echeverría headed a government strategy group dealing with the protests.

Under the PRI, whose candidates ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, outgoing Mexican presidents picked their successors, who were then assured of victory. Selected by Díaz Ordaz, Mr. Echeverría as president continued Mexico’s fight against guerrillas and protesters.

At a student protest in 1971, dozens more were killed by right-wing paramilitaries, a reprisal that Mr. Echeverría attributed to the mayor of Mexico City. According to data compiled by Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights, 342 people were “disappeared” during Mr. Echeverría’s presidency.

Vicente Fox’s election in 2000 as the first modern non-PRI president led to the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the dirty war, including the student massacres of 1968 and 1971. Mr. Echeverría was indicted on genocide charges because the statute of limitations for murder had elapsed.

Mr. Echeverría denied responsibility for the deaths, and, in 2007, a federal magistrate ruled that not enough evidence existed to try him. An appeals panel upheld that decision in 2009.

Luis Echeverría Álvarez was born in Mexico City on Jan. 17, 1922, and received a bachelor’s and a law degree at the National Autonomous University.

His political career began in 1945, when he married María Zuno, daughter of a party boss in Jalisco state. The following year, he joined the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish acronym PRI, and became the private secretary to the president of the party.

His wife, with whom he had eight children, died in 1999. A son, Álvaro Echeverría Zuno, died in 2020. A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

In 1970, when Mr. Echeverría became the youngest PRI nominee for president in nearly two decades, he campaigned across Mexico, saying, “To me, it is not only important to win, but to win over.” According to campaign literature, he traveled 35,100 miles in 229 days, delivering 850 speeches for an election he was assured to win.

During his campaign, he advocated land reform and sought to win support among the poor, who accounted for almost half the country’s population. He defined himself as “neither to the right, nor to the left, nor in a static center, but onward and upward.”

But Mr. Echeverría’s presidency was marked by deep economic turmoil, partly attributed to the world oil crisis. Deficit spending was compounded by an inability to collect tax revenue, and he was forced to devalue the peso twice at the end of his term.

In keeping with his populist rhetoric, much of his spending was on social programs, which angered many of the business elite. Shortly before the end of his term, oil was discovered in Mexico, which permitted Mr. Echeverría to secure more foreign loans. Foreign debt increased from $3.5 billion to more than $20 billion by the end of the term.

Mr. Echeverría did further damage to the economy by lending support to a 1975 U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism. This prompted many Jewish Americans to boycott Mexico, resulting in the cancellation of 30,000 hotel reservations and costing the country’s economy $200 million, as George Grayson, an authority on Mexican politics, told the Los Angeles Times.

At the end of his presidency, Mr. Echeverría designated Finance Secretary José López Portillo as his successor. However, López Portillo’s management of the economy was even worse than Echeverría’s, leading to the 1982 peso devaluation and an economic crash.

In later years, Mr. Echeverría kept a low profile. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to Australia and was a representative to UNESCO. He also ran a center for Third World studies until his criticisms of López Portillo prompted the president to withdraw funding for the institute.