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Burying Mexico's Dirty War

Disappearing the Disappeared

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City.

The Office of the Special Prosecutor charged with investigating forcible disappearances during the so-called "dirty war" here (1970-82) has itself been forcibly disappeared. The Special Prosecutor for Social Movements and Political Crimes of the Past (FEMOSPP) officially went out of business April 15th after Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca declared its mission to have been "accomplished"–although the FEMOSSPP solved none of the crimes it was charged with investigating.

The Special Prosecutor’s office was established by President Vicente Fox in 2002 to fulfill a campaign promise that he would constitute a "truth commission" to investigate unexplained political crimes of the past, notably the massacre of hundreds of striking students at the Tlatelolco housing complex in downtown Mexico City on the eve of the Olympic Games here October 2nd 1968 under President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz; the murder of at least 23 students during a march on Corpus Christi day June 10th 1971 under President Luis Echeverria; and the "dirty war" that security forces waged against dissident groups from 1970 through 1982 under Diaz Ordaz, Echeverria, and President Jose Lopez Portillo.

The FEMOSSP was also mandated to investigate crimes committed by guerrilla groups, particularly internal killings, and a series of more recent massacres at Aguas Blancas (1995) and Acteal (1997.)

Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, who functioned as special prosecutor for the entire life of the office, is himself the cousin of a victim of the dirty war –Deni Prieto, gunned down by the anti-terror White Brigades in 1975 at Napantla, Mexico state. Deni Prieto was a member of the Forces of National Liberation (FLN), which years later became the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

Fox’s appointment of a special prosecutor rather than the creation of a truth commission as he had pledged provoked high dudgeon among groups like the survivors of the 1968 student repression, and the Eureka Committee, headed by Rosario Ibarra de Piedra which has spent the last 30 years trying to find the disappeared (including Ibarra’s own son), and Carrillo’s office had credibility problems from start-up.

Although endowed with Fox’s blessing and a hefty budget, the FEMOSSP was repeatedly stymied by the very security agencies that it was charged with investigating. When Carrillo’s investigators petitioned the military for records relating to over 700 presumably disappeared Mexican citizens, the records themselves disappeared. Rooms of documents culled from police and military records held in the Archives of the Nation, ironically located at Lecumberri prison where many of these atrocities occurred, were declared off-limits to FEMOSSP investigators. A dozen crucial files related to the Corpus Christi investigations disappeared. At least one witness was gunned down.

Many of those who disappeared were seen alive by political prisoners released in a 1978 amnesty during their time in secret lock-ups. Zacarias Osorio, a military sharpshooter, who defected to Canada in 1987 claims to have been part of an army death squad that between 1978 and 1981, assassinated as many as 120 political prisoners held in a secret section of Military Camp #1 in western Mexico City. Their bodies were then incinerated, according to testimony Osorio gave to Canadian officials during asylum hearings.

Although its mission was declared to have been accomplished, the now-disappeared special prosecutor’s office had a feeble track record. During his four years as special prosecutor, Carrillo Prieto was able to collar just one mid-level gorilla, an aging Miguel Nazar Haro, the kingpin of the dreaded White Brigades –19 other arrest warrants went unserved. Others accused of dirty war crimes like General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro charged with supervising the "vuelos de muerte" (death-flights) in which the bodies of suspected guerilleros were dumped into the Pacific Ocean off Acapulco, hired smart lawyers and won "amparos" (stays) against prosecution. Still other dirty warriors escaped prosecution by dying –most of the accused are now in their 80s and infirm.

When the Special Prosecutor went after the big cheese, Luis Echeverria, for both the Tlatelolco and Corpus killings, the courts threw the charges out because the 30-year statute of limitations on prosecution had elapsed. Obsessed with nailing the 84 year-old ex-president, Carrillo sought to prosecute him on genocide but the courts deemed the charges inappropriate and the case was thrown out again.

According to scuttlebutt around the Attorney General’s office, the disappeared FEMOSSP will yield its space to yet another special prosecutor –the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Women. Judging by the over 400 unsolved murders of women in Ciudad Juarez, the new prosecutor will have a success rate equal to the former occupants of the office.

The FEMOSSPP went out of business without even issuing a final report on its four-year investigation into crimes of the past. Although no summing up has thus far been published by Attorney General Cabeza de Vaca, one does exist: an 840 page tome, "This Can Never Happen Again" prepared by the FEMOSSPP’s own Working Committee On the Clarification of Historical Truth, a group of 27 prominent investigators contracted by Carrillo to prepare a summary of the special prosecutor’s work. The report was submitted to Carrillo Prieto last December but by late February had still not been published and the investigators feared alteration and an eventual whitewash.

Soon copies of the volume started turning up on the doorsteps of prominent intellectuals and writers, including Elena Poniatowska, the most prestigious documentarian of the Tlatelolco massacre, and Carlos Montemayor who has delved into the crimes of the dirty war for decades. "The delay of the FEMOSSP in publishing this vital document constitutes an assault on collective memory" was how the investigator expressed his indignation during a March phone interview.

One recipient of the leaked report was U.S. researcher Kate Doyle who heads up the Mexico Project for the private National Security Archives in Washington D.C. Doyle who had uncovered important dirty war documents held by U.S. security agencies, later posted "This Can Never Happen Again" on the NSA Internet page and tipped off the New York Times (her husband is a Times correspondent) about its existence. Ginger Thompson’s February 26th scoop on the leaked report proved highly embarrassing for both Fox and Carrillo and is said to have set the Mexican military’s teeth on edge –the Mexican army once forced the withdrawal of millions of school books because the text suggested the military had a hand in the Tlatelolco killings.

"This Can Never Happen Again" records the illegal detention of 15,000 dissidents by security forces in the 12-year period beginning in 1970. Over a thousand cases of torture are documented –the report includes a grim compendium of torture techniques including "the roasted chicken" during which male prisoners were hung by the testicles, and the "trago" (or drink) in which prisoners were forced to drink gasoline and then set on fire.

According to the report, prisoners were held in 650 secret lock-ups in many parts of the country. Rape of women prisoners was routine and 208 minors were imprisoned along with their parents –many have never been located. The Working Committee recorded 747 disappearances, 438 of which have been substantiated. Another 208 are still in the evidentiary process. Most of the disappeared are thought to be dead.

"This Can Never Happen Again" names names and affixes responsibilities for these crimes. The report concludes that between 1970 and 1982, Mexican security forces carried out "a genocidal plan" that included "crimes of lessa humanity, massacres, forced disappearances, systematic torture, and war crimes." Many here think the dirty war never ended.

Curiously, FEMOSSP’s now disappeared special prosecutor claimed that no such document as "This Can Never Happen Again" existed–until photographs of Carrillo Prieto holding the volume at an internal meeting emerged. More recently, Carrillo has referred to the document as a "draft" pending "revisions" before publication. The Attorney General’s office, which did what attorney generals do when compromising documents are leaked to the public and went after the leakers, says there is no scheduled publication date for the report.

Although working committee members vigorously deny leaking the document, they probably had good reason to do so. The investigators recently filed suit against Carrillo Prieto for failing to pay them during the six months they were on the FEMOSSPP payroll. The charges are not the only taint of fiduciary finagling that hang over the office of the special prosecutor. 50 million pesos in "national security" funds –secret moneys thought to have been put aside to pay off "soplones" or stool pigeons –has been "illegally diverted" according to government bookkeepers.

In addition, the former special prosecutor has been accused of nepotism –his ex-wife reportedly ran the all-important FEMOSSP office in Atoyac, Guerrero where some of the cruelest dirty war battles took place.

Six years ago, when Vicente Fox was elected as the first opposition president of Mexico, he promised accountability, an end to impunity, and the resolution of horrific political crimes commited by the Mexican state against its own citizens. As Fox prepares to leave office, those crimes remain unsolved and impunity reigns in Mexico as surely as it ever did when the PRI ran the show here for seven decades of "perfect dictatorship." In fact, during Fox’s six years in office, Ibarra’s Eureka Committee has recorded the disappearances of 67 more Mexicans.

"The only truth," ruminated Angeles Magdaleno, the ex-director of historical analysis for the now disappeared FEMOSSPP upon leaving the office of the special prosecutor, "is that no one wants to know the truth."

JOHN ROSS has covered four previous Mexican presidential election. He is the author of Murdered By Capitalism.