Adios to a Dark Past

Mexico's evolution toward a society where no one is above the law may be slow, but it appears to be getting surer.

This week President Vicente Fox announced the opening of millions of formerly secret government files that can throw light on past human rights abuses. The president's action follows the recent passage of a national freedom of information law.

Greater official openness about a recent past that included widespread killing, torture, and "disappearances" of political dissidents is vital to Mexico's recovery from seven decades of authoritarian, one-party rule. Mr. Fox came to office 18 months ago promising to uncover past wrongs and prosecute those responsible.

That process, in fact, started before Fox's election. In 1998, the country marked the 30th anniversary of a 1968 incident in which hundreds of student demonstrators in Mexico City were shot by soldiers. Renewed calls were made then for investigation of that dark episode, and of others that occurred during Mexico's "dirty war" against leftists in the 1970s.

Now that the government has owned up to past involvement in atrocities, appointed a special prosecutor to probe specific cases of "disappearance," and opened its files to public scrutiny, the quest for truth should gain momentum.

Whether Fox can follow through on pledges to prosecute those responsible, even past presidents, is unclear. Political resistance to that could be fierce.

But the fundamental goal of demonstrating that the rule of law embraces even the police and the military must be reached. Too many Mexicans have come, through harsh experience, to view those institutions as corrupt and dangerous. Remarkably, the country's National Commission for Human Rights gets up to 400 complaints a month from citizens who say they've been mistreated, often tortured, by the police.

Getting at the truth about past abuses should strengthen current reforms and crackdowns, so that Mexico can chart a better future.

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