October 13, 2000

Mexico's Cold War Wounds — The Disappeared That Won't Go Away

By Martin Espinoza

MEXICO CITY — It's a woeful scene you would expect to see on the streets of Buenos Aires, Guatemala City or Santiago, Chile — forlorn mothers, carrying enlarged photos of their "disappeared" sons and daughters, demanding that the government return their loved ones.

This, however, is Mexico, a country that has long prided itself on being a safe haven for the world's political exiles.

Yet for those who claim to be victims of Mexico's guerra sucia — the so-called "dirty war" that has been waged off and on against political dissidents here since the early 1970s — Mexico is anything but a political sanctuary.

While the demonstrations by family members of hundreds of disappeared critics of the Mexican government are nothing new, what is new is that the Mexican government, nearly by accident, has recently put itself in a position where it must at least pretend to listen.

A few weeks ago, Mexico jailed two army generals with alleged ties to drug traffickers, an action that appeared to be a good-faith gesture in the country's ongoing, U.S.-backed war on drugs. Not surprisingly, the timing of the arrests coincided with President Ernesto Zedillo's sixth and last state of the union address.

Although arrested on drug charges, Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Humberto Quiros Hermosillo were notorious for their involvement in a military campaign in the impoverished state of Guerrero during the 1970s. According to human rights advocates, the two led a military operation against armed rebels that quickly turned into a Cold War-style internal purge that spread through out the country.

To the family members of Mexico's disappeared, the arrest of Acosta and Quiros was a stroke of luck. For years, the Mexican government has ignored demands for an accounting of hundreds of disappeared campesinos, student activists and intellectuals.

Now, with human rights groups finding an opening, the call for the prosecution of Acosta and Quiros for their role in unsolved cases involving torture, disappearances, and extra-judicial killings has turned into front-page news.

Radio stations have interviewed torture survivors. Newspapers and magazines are revisiting Mexico's Cold War past, and politicians have called for civil investigations of the charges against the military.

Due to the outcry the military's attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, declared that his office was accepting citizen complaints against Acosta and Quiros for human rights violations.

De la Concha's announcement, though seen by critics as merely lip service, has angered some military officers. One anonymous army officer told the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada that in society generals are usually the ones who do all the dirty work, and that it is not fair that they be punished for simply following orders.

Another military source told La Jornada: "What message are we giving young Military College graduates whom we then send to the mountains to fight drug traffickers and armed rebels? Will they worry that in a few years, they too may be prosecuted for fulfilling their duties?"

But some of these duties, according to a 1998 Amnesty International (AI) report on disappearances in Mexico, "include systematic torture during interrogation...[including] beatings, electric shocks, prolonged suspension from the wrists, near-asphyxiation in foul water, mock executions and sleep and food deprivation."

AI has documented more than 400 cases of disappearances in the last 20 years. Most of these cases, the report says, "have remained unresolved, the victims have not been released or `reappeared,' and those responsible have not been brought to justice."

AI works closely with Comite Eureka, a group made up of relatives of the disappeared and some abductees who have been released. Since Comite was founded in 1977, it has successfully campaigned for the release of 148 disappeared people.

Comite Eureka and AI are also credited with the decrease in disappearances in Mexico during the early 1990s. However, with the 1994 armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, and other rebel groups springing up in other impoverished states, reports of disappearances are once again on the rise.

The arrest of two high-ranking military officers for alleged links to Mexico's drug trade was hardly a surprise. In 1997, drug czar General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo was arrested for alleged ties with Amado Carrillo-Fuentes, Mexico's most powerful drug trafficker in recent history. Since then several high-ranking military officials also have been found to have links to the drug trade.

But the Mexican government is apparently willing to confess only its military officialdom's drug-related crimes, but not others.

Ibarra Piedra of Comite Eureka told reporters in Chihuahua, "Now they want to punish (Acosta and Quiros) for drug trafficking, when long ago they should have been tried and punished for those disappearances for which they are responsible."

Martin Espinoza reports from Mexico City, Mexico.

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