Warrant for Dirty War President Rebuffed by Court, Military and One-time Ruling Party


On the 25th anniversary of the death of ex-president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, whose six years in office (1964-70) were stained with the blood of hundreds of striking students gunned down on the eve of the 1968 Olympic games here, surviving family members and cronies gathered at his well-tended tomb in a wealthy enclave just outside the capital.

Among those who had come to honor the dead president students taunted as “El Chango” (“The Monkey”) was his successor, Luis Echeverria, now a frail but not doddering octogenarian who himself was about to be charged with being complicit in plotting the student massacres that signaled the opening salvos in Mexico’s as-yet unfinished dirty war. Also at graveside: Echeverria protégé Roberto Madrazo, the snake-thin president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which owned Mexico for seven decades until displaced from the presidency by the rightist Vicente Fox, and under whose auspices the most heinous dirty war crimes took place.

“We must leave history to the historians to clarify” the orator, the PRI governor of Puebla state, intoned as Madrazo and the ex president exchanged meaningful glances, “let us look to the future and not the past.”

The remarks at the Diaz Ordaz memorial added decibels to the rising chorus of Echeverria defenders as Ignacio Carrillo, the Fox-appointed special prosecutor for past political crimes, put the finishing touches on his blockbuster request of a federal judge for the arrest of the ex-president and his confederates on charges of genocide.

Among those advocating caution in the efforts to bring Echeverria to justice was Fox’s Secretary of Defense, General Ricardo Clemente Vega Garcia. In a speech to the National War College days before Carrillo’s self-imposed deadline for filing the indictment against Echeverria and nine co-defendants, Garcia Vega warned darkly that “these are times of reconciliation and we must know how to pardonif not, the country could slip from our hands.” Insiders say the speech could not have been delivered without having first been cleared with the president.

The defense secretary’s veiled call for a “punto final”as such procedures to exculpate perpetrators is euphemistically tagged in Chilean and Argentinean dirty war prosecutions, was echoed by one of Mexico’s top law enforcer, Santiago Vasconcelos, who runs the nation’s war on organized crime and is a close ally of Attorney General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, himself an army general. “It will be difficult to judge (Echeverria) without understanding the context of the times. The nation was under attack and these men were doing their job to keep us secure,” the anti-crime czar argued, endorsing amnesty for those who ran the dirty war that spanned three presidencies ­ Diaz Ordaz to Echeverria to the late Jose Lopez Portillo ­ and continues on even unto today (see “The Dirty War Today-2)

The context to which the sub-prosecutor refers was, of course, the Cold War when Mexico was seen by Washington as a bulwark against Soviet subversion in the hemisphere and local leftists were considered accomplices of the world-wide Communist conspuiracy. The roadsides of the country were plastered with billboards that read “Christianity Si! Communism No!”

In a surprise move two days before his announced July 24th deadline, Special Prosecutor Carrillo and a team of associates lugged nine bulging boxes of documents into a Mexico City courtroom adjacent to one of the capital’s most corrupt prisons and filed a raft of papers asking federal Judge Cesar Flores to issue orders for the arrest of ex-president Luis Echeverria on charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity.

The request for the arrest warrant was unprecedented in modern Mexican history where the “Imperial Presidency” was once the sole authority in a uni-party system, and the word handed down from Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, was the virtual law of the land. Even the much-reviled Carlos Salinas who many Mexicans believe looted and bankrupted the country was allowed to escape into self-exile, although his brother languishes in prison for contracting the killing of a PRI rival.

General Plutarco Elias Calles, the founder of the PRI, was seized by troops and packed off to San Diego by his successor, Lazaro Cardenas, another army general. Carranza and Obregon, both generals and post-revolutionary presidents, were gunned down as was Salinas’s handpicked candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. But no president, sitting or not, has ever before been formally arrested.

24 hours after the special prosecutor filed his request, Judge Flores upheld the long-standing impunity of those who commanded the dirty war against the Mexican Left by refusing to indict Luis Echeverria et al. The jurist justified his decision on the grounds that the statute of limitations had elapsed on genocide and the related charges.

Although Mexican laws sanctioning genocide carry a 30 year-limit, a period that expired in 2001 for the particular crime Echeverria is accused of – the so-called “Corpus Thursday Massacre” – Carrillo Prieto argues that the nation is a signatory to international conventions that make the crime prosecutable, a position Mexico’s Supreme Court has endorsed. The special prosecutor will appeal the turndown of his request for an arrest warrant directly to the Supreme Court, a process that could take anywhere from six months to a year.

Now the shrunken shell of his former strongman self, Echeverria, for whom 41 Mexico City streets are named, first gained notoriety as Diaz Ordaz’s hard-nosed Interior Secretary and is thought to be the last civilian official to sign off on a military plan drawn up by Diaz Ordaz’s personal command (“Estado Mayor Presidencial”) to massacre the students at a meeting in the capital’s Tlatelolco housing complex on October 2nd, 1968. Diaz Ordaz later took full responsibility for the repression.

As president, Echeverria broadcast a stridently left wing, populist line and championed third world solidarity and south-south alliance ­ even as he persecuted left dissenters at home at the behest of Washington. In the aftermath of the Pinochet coup in Chile, he welcomed refugees from that dirty war to Mexico and even offered them positions in his government, at the same time that he was conducting his own dirty war against homegrown rebels.

Echeverria also presided over Mexico’s oil boom, a process that ended in economic and environmental disaster, and was a devote of the “guayabera”, a loose-fitting tropical shirt much loved in Cuba, an island to whose defense he was pledged.

The crime for which Carrillo Prieto has chosen to prosecute the former president and a handful of co-conspirators transpired June 10th, 1971, a Thursday and the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi, when thousands of university students took to the streets of Mexico City for the first time since the Tlatelolco bloodshed, and a paramilitary band, the “Halcones” or “Falcons”, opened fire on them and beat dozens to death with clubs ­ although there has never been an official count (the police attributed the violence to a feud between rival student groups), 39 are thought to have died on “Thursday of Corpus.”

Echeverria, who was inaugurating a water system elsewhere in Mexico City that day quickly fingered his appointed mayor Alfonso Martinez Dominguez as fall guy and fired him the next day. Similarly, those charged with Echeverria have pointed to Martinez as having organized the attack, an expedient accusation since the ex-mayor died early in Carrillo Prieto’s investigation. Before he passed on, Martinez Dominguez told Carrillo’s investigators the president had ordered the killings in no uncertain terms: “if they are wounded, take them to Military Camp #1. If there are bodies, burn them!”

The Corpus Thursday killings opened a full throttle dirty war against leftist guerrillas whose ranks had been swelled with disaffected students after Tlatelolco. 15 distinct guerrilla “focos” operated throughout Mexico during Echeverria’s reign, most notably in the mountains of the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero where over 500 farmers are thought to have disappeared during the Echeverria-ordered counter-insurgency. In towns like Atoyac, each family lost at least one.

The former president and his co-defendants (they include Echeverria’s Interior secretary and attorney general and several army generals) are charged by the special prosecutor with multiple offenses, most notoriously genocide or the systematic physical elimination of an entire class or ethnic group or, in this case, a political group.

From the outset of his investigation, Carrillo Prieto has clung tenaciously to the idea of prosecuting Echeverria on genocide charges despite peer opinions that the Corpus massacre did not fit the definition of the allegation and that even if it did, Mexican law would take precedence over international treaty.
One leg of the case for a genocide indictment is reportedly founded on information gleaned from Phillip Agee’s cold war classic, “Inside the Company ­ CIA Diary” in which the author, a covert agent posing as a “cultural attaché” in the run-up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, reports that he and his colleagues prepared a daily report for Echeverria assessing subversive activities in the country and suggesting how the then-interior secretary could combat them.

Document probes into the Corpus Thursday massacres, most notably by Kate Doyle of the private National Security Archives in Washington, establish that not only did the Nixon government know of the Falcons’ murderous plans prior to the June 10th 1971 killings but also that several members of the paramilitary group were actually trained in the United States.

Although the CIA’s mission to eliminate the enemies of U.S. Capitalism in Mexico seems to be fundamental to Carrillo Prieto’s case for charging genocide, his source is not so enthusiastic. Reached in Havana by the national daily La Jornada where he now runs a travel agency, Agee was evasive: “it would be better to let things lie as they are.”

The inclusion of retired generals, one the leader of the Halcones, in the arrest warrants asked by Carrillo Prieto, and the intended detention of Echeverria, the ex-commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, has, as might be anticipated, riled up the military which under the constitution enjoys immunity from prosecution in civilian courts – the “fuero militar” ­ and should be out of reach for the special prosecutor. General Alvaro Vallarta, a PRI congressional deputy, has called upon Fox to dissolve Carrillo Prieto’s office and instead to investigate the guerrilla fighters who “shot 300 Mexican soldiers in the back” and allegedly assassinated their own comrades in internecine disputes.

The military’s immunity from prosecution is widely criticized by national and international human rights groups as a closed-door, arbitrary proceeding with no oversight that often whitewashes abuses committed by the army against civilian populations. Indeed, in early July, a military tribunal cleared General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro of complicity in the deaths of 22 Guerrero campesinos whose bodies were loaded on to military planes and dumped into the Pacific Ocean off Acapulco while General Acosta was head of the state police during the Echeverria presidency. The so-called “vuelos de muerte” (“flights of death) soon spread to the dirty wars further south as standard operating procedure for disposing of torture victims.

The PRI, whose hands are as steeped in gore as the military’s, and whose seven decade “perfect dictatorship” would never have functioned so smoothly without the hard hand of the army to suppress dissidents, appeared as fretful about the indictments as the generals were. Indeed, the fates of these two venerable institutions are indelibly entwined.

11 high ranking military men have served as president of the PRI in the former state party’s 76-year history and six PRI presidents of the republic were generals. Although the army withdrew from congress as a formal political bloc in 1946, its interests have always been tended to by the PRI. Currently, four retired generals serve as PRI legislators, among them Ramon Mota Sanchez who heads up the senate armed forces commission and regards Carrillo Prieto’s foiled attempts to indict Echeverria & Company as “pragmatic perversity and complete ignorance of our history ­ these allegations would destroy the presidency if they are allowed to proceed and constitute a direct attack on the legitimacy of the Mexican state.”

The PRI president Madrazo, an overt candidate for the presidency in 2006, threatens to break off a sputtering “dialogue” with the Fox administration in re the backlog of legislation the PRI has successfully bottled up, if the special prosecutor’s hand is not stayed. “This country’s institutions are in fragile shape and this is not a good time to open fresh political conflicts,” the PRI honcho hisses.

“We cannot let the ‘olvido’ (forgetting) take over ­ we have to learn these lessons so the past does not happen again” responds Carrillo to those who call upon his office to just forget all about prosecuting the perpetrators of the dirty war and close up the shop.

Created by Fox on the recommendation of the National Human Rights Commission as the most politically expedient way to respond to the president’s campaign pledge of establishing a “truth commission”, the special prosecutor’s office for the investigation of past political crimes (FEMOSPP) has had a rocky road to climb from its inception. Carrillo Prieto’s credibility was assailed by the grand dona of the disappeared, Rosario Ibarra de Piedra who lost a son to the dirty war ­ even though Carrillo himself suffered the police assassination of his cousin, Demi Prieto, a member of a Zapatista predecessor guerrilla formation. The military distrusted the special prosecutor too and refused to talk to FEMOSPP investigators. Witnesses disappeared and some were shot dead.

The first indictment Carrillo drew up against Miguel Nazar Haro, head of the White Brigade thought responsible for the 1975 forced disappearance of Ibarra’s son Jesus, was thrown out on similar grounds that the statute of limitations had elapsed. Later, the Supreme Court ­ to whom Carrillo will now appeal the Echeverria decision – would rule that forced disappearance cases could never be closed until the fate of the disappeared had been determined. Nazar Haro is back behind bars although, aged and ailing, he spends most of his time in the prison hospital, the sole dirty warrior up until now jailed by Carrillo.

Whether Luis Echeverria will ever actually spend a night in jail remains to be savored. The genocide allegation seems dubiously drawn and some family members of the victims of Corpus Thursday charge that the prosecutor has purposely left the ex-president a lot of legal wiggle room.

Even if the high court reverses Judge Flores’ denial, given appeals and “amparos” (injunctions against prosecution) at every step of the proceedings, Luis Echeverria is at least three years away from going to trial by which time he may well have, as is so often the case with dirty war prosecutions, escaped justice by death.

In the interim, should the arrest orders be reinstated, the former president will be comforted by a new law that calls for house arrest for those defendants 70 years of age and above. “They have waited to prosecute these criminals until they are too old to go to jail” snaps ex-deputy Rosa Albino Garavato, a one-time guerrilla fighter who was tortured during the dirty war.

Even if President Fox at one time intended a serious probe of past state crimes, political exigencies now impel him to cut his losses and move on. The scenario for a presidential pardon is already in place ­ “the only rationale way out of this trap with a minimum of political cost” concurs Federico Reyes Heroles, son of the PRI’s most venerated politilogue. “I only created the FEMOSPP” Fox recently told reporters, “I didn’t promise to punish anyone.”

JOHN ROSS will be on the spot in Mexico City for much of July and August before sallying forth to do maximum mischief at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan from where he will launch the intergalactic tour of his latest instant cult classic “Murdered By Capitalism–A Memoir of 150 Years of Life & Death on the U.S. Left“.

JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org