Files haunt Mexico's former leaders, but justice is slow

Declassified archives implicate government officials in deadly student protests, say investigators

Some Mexicans are returning to the place where they spent years imprisoned by their own government. But this time, they're going voluntarily, seeking the justice they say they were once denied.

Three decades ago, the fortress-like Lecumberri Palace in downtown Mexico City housed hundreds of political prisoners. Most were jailed for activities the government deemed seditious or a threat to national security. Some were just college students at the time.

Today, the renovated palace holds Mexico's national archives. In June, President Vicente Fox declassified 3,000 boxes of once-secret documents. Investigators and some former prisoners are poring over the files and uncovering evidence of government wrongdoing, including its involvement in student protests in 1968 and 1971 that left dozens dead.

But so far, the dusty documents aren't making the wheels of justice turn any faster. When Mr. Fox appointed a special prosecutor to examine the files, many Mexicans hoped their country would lead the way in bringing justice to former officials. Instead, Mexico is learning what other countries have found: It's not easy to convict former leaders of past crimes.

"The incapacity of this government to explain [the past] logically to our people and to the world is going to weigh heavily on Mexico," says Enrique Condés Lara, a historian and former political prisoner who spent five years jailed at Lecumberri.

The declassified boxes kept by the Interior Ministry since the 1920s, he says, show that Mexico's government had a J. Edgar Hoover-like obsession with keeping watch over its citizens and deeply feared opposition. "This is where the dark face of the government hid," Mr. Condés says. "To read it makes your hair stand on end."

Some of those hair-raising documents include meticulous reports sent to the country's senior leaders every 10 minutes on June 10, 1971, the day that dozens of demonstrators were slain by the government's secretive and feared security force.

"17:45 Hrs," reads one typical dispatch. "Members of the 'Falcons' continue attacking the protesters along Mexico Tacuba Street and Mechor Ocampo. It's said that five of them are gravely injured."

Ex-President Luis Echeverría, who ran Mexico in the late 1960s and '70s, is the first to be investigated. Previously, he said he had nothing to hide. But last month, citing poor health and his right not to incriminate himself, he refused to testify about the deaths of student protesters in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Plaza on Oct. 2, 1968, when he was interior secretary; or about the killing of at least 30 students during the 1971 demonstration, when he was president.

Activists and victims' relatives say his about-face is tantamount to a confession. Yet even special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto admits it will make a conviction that much harder to obtain. "Silence says more than words," Mr. Carillo said, "but also holds up the investigation."

Mexico isn't the first country to face obstacles to convicting former leaders of state crimes. In July, the Supreme Court in Chile finally halted the prosecution of former dictator Augusto Pinochet on political killings during his rule. Citing his failing health, the court found him unfit to stand trial. South Africa's Truth Commission chose to give apartheid-era leaders amnesty in return for confessions because of the difficulty in prosecuting those cases. And El Salvador's Congress simply pardoned those leaders charged with civil war-era crimes. Tribunals created after the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the civil war in Rwanda, meanwhile, have been drawn out and costly, yielding few convictions.

Since Mexico's archives are not yet catalogued, investigators have waded through reams of unrelated material. Condés has found letters from provincial officials to federal leaders implicating state governors who were involved in drug trafficking, and others who cheated on their wives. With this level of detail, he says, "There is no way that President Echeverría did not know what was going on" in 1968 and 1971.

But most of the officials in question are now elderly, and some of the charges against them have passed the statute of limitations. Moreover, plaintiffs disagree over what charges to file.

Raul Alvarez Garín, with the Committee of '68, an independent group representing families of victims of the student killings, wants to prove genocide, claiming that the Mexican government systematically targeted students. Others fear the genocide charge will crumble in court and weaken their cases.

Politically, too, the situation is complex. Two years ago, Fox ended 71 years of autocratic rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on an election pledge to abolish impunity in Mexico. But he has since locked horns with the PRI in Congress. As in other countries that have opted for reconciliation over justice, many analysts here predict Fox won't push hard for convictions of former PRI leaders while he's struggling to win the party's support for his legislative initiatives. Still, some contend that Mexico needs to confront its past in order to move toward the more democratic future Fox has promised.

"This is not just for Mexico, but for the whole world," says Federico Emery Ulloa, a former Lecumberri prisoner who has filed a complaint against Echeverría. "We have seen in other countries that there is no way to advance democratically without taking the past into account."

Mr. Emery visited his former jail this year for the first time since he was arrested in 1969 for being part of a Maoist student group. He found documents detailing his arrest and detention that will help his case.

"I went with my son and daughter, and we took pictures in my old cell block," he says. "There were so many memories of what happened, and at the same time a sense of happiness. It still makes me emotional just to discuss it."

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