Mexico Faces its Terror

When Vicente Fox took Mexico's reins a year ago this weekend, he vowed to address questions of justice and human rights that have marred his country's recent history. In essence, the new president, breaking with seven decades of one-party rule, pledged to deal with a variety of terrorism all too common in Latin America.

In the 1970s, it took the form of an official crackdown on leftist activists, during which more than 500 Mexicans were detained and tortured. Many "disappeared" without a trace. This week a Mexican human rights commission released a report on that period, and Mr. Fox has promised to follow through with prosecutions.

The need for follow-through on such issues was heavily underscored by last month's brutal murder in Mexico City of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa. Ms. Ochoa had defended peasant activists involved in various causes, and had long challenged Mexico's entrenched powers, whether wealthy landowners or the military.

To his credit, since the Ochoa murder President Fox has commuted the prison sentences of two peasant environmental activists, former clients of Ochoa's who had tried to stop commercial logging in their region. Human rights groups say the men were tortured by the military to extricate confessions.

This case, like Ochoa's, indicates the large task still ahead for Fox. His administration is a break with the past, but how deep is the break?

Beneath the upper echelons of Fox appointees are layers of bureaucrats, police, and military officials who may still have an allegiance to the old, often violent ways of doing things.

Fox will have to both unearth an unpleasant past and hotly pursue current cases. He has shown no lack of energy in freeing Mexico from past insularity. In the first year of a six-year term, he has already out-traveled all predecessors. Now he must show the same energy in taking down roadblocks of injustice and state-sanctioned violence at home.

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