Mexico begins to face legacy of 'dirty war'

The Mexican government admits its role in the kidnap and torture of hundreds of 1970s leftists.

In an effort to redress past wrongs, the Mexican government has for the first time acknowledged its own role in the disappearances of hundreds of leftists during its "dirty war" in the 1970s and early '80s.

On Tuesday, a government human rights commission presented a 3,000-page report concluding that many of the 532 people reported missing during those years had been seized and tortured by federal, state, or municipal authorities.

President Vicente Fox said the commission's findings would "help us reflect over our recent history and also over the type of nation we want to build."

But for victims' families and human rights groups who have long demanded government accountability, the report was a long time in coming - and it still falls short. While it fingers the former Federal Security Directorate, plus 37 other government agencies, it fails to name some 74 officials - 59 federal and 15 state - implicated in the abductions.

President Fox is walking a fine political line, delivering on campaign promises of investigating the disappearances, while trying to avoid alienating the former ruling party, which is directly implicated in the report.

When Fox won the presidency last year, he brought an end to 71 years of one-party rule by the Insititutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Human rights groups say that naming top officials in the investigation could implicate past presidents.

Activists had criticized Fox for failing to investigate the government role in the disappearances, but when prominent human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa was murdered in October, the pressure reached an all-time high. In response, Fox appointed the human rights commission and unsealed previously secret documents.

At the ceremony Tuesday, Fox also announced the creation of a special prosecutor's office to investigate the cases of the disappeared - but he nonetheless rejected calls to form a truth commission such as the one established in Argentina to investigate the fates of thousands who were disappeared under its military regime during the same period.

Analysts say Fox's top priority is passing a contested federal budget for 2002, and that he needs to keep the PRI on his side. "I think he is indicating that he is concerned about the disappearances, and that he is not blind or insensitive to those events," says George Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William & Mary.

"At the same time, I don't look for him to undertake a crusade against past administrations right now, largelybecause he has got to get a budget passed."

On Tuesday, José Luis Soberanes, the commission chairman, said his study proved conclusively that 275 of those missing vanished while in government hands, and that most if not all suffered torture, including electric shock treatment and severe beatings. But further investigation was needed to prove the other 257 cases, he said.

Some of the missing victims were suspected members and sympathizers of small guerrilla groups that carried out bombings, kidnappings, and occasional murders during the 1970s in hopes of creating a communist state.

"We are convinced that now our state institutions are capable of taking on this [investigative] work with impartiality and impunity," Fox said Tuesday.

In a country where the vast majority of crimes go unsolved, and even more unreported, his statement met with outrage from relatives of the disappeared who are leading the campaign for justice.

"This was the cruelest trick they can play on a mother," said Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, who leads the Comité Eureka, a foundation for relatives of the disappeared as well as the 148 detainees her group helped to find.

Relatives of the missing had hoped the report would give further details about where their loved ones could be found, and also give the names of some of those officials responsible.

Mrs. Ibarra's son Jesus Piedra, a suspected member of a former leftist group, disappeared 26 years ago in the northern state of Nuevo Leon. She has searched for him tirelessly since then, and says this week's report makes it clear her fight must continue.

"Lionesses fight for their sons. My obligation is to protect him and to keep him alive," she said.

The 74-year-old former housewife, who has twice won seats in Congress since she launched her battle, says she is not tired by the fight, but prays to God that she will live many years longer. "With the looks of it," she said, "I am going to need to."

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