Mexico must come to terms with its past

By Joe Katz

On October 2, 1968, thousands of students involved in a mass movement against government brutality gathered in the ancient Aztec plaza known as Tlatelolco Square, located in the heart of Mexico City. Once the rally began, escape routes were cut off by military forces, and members of a ‘special’ paramilitary unit opened fire on them. Conservative estimates report a death count of at least 100. It has never been established who gave the order to fire, or how that decision was reached.

On July 2, 2006, the people of Mexico will go to the polls to elect their second president since the reinstitution of democracy in the nation.

The man who emerges victorious from that election will have the opportunity to take the necessary steps to finally lay the horrors of Tlatelolco to rest. His choices could go a long way to determine whether Mexico’s embryonic democracy is to survive.

Among the many promises of outgoing President Vicente Fox before he began his term was the establishment of a Truth Commission to investigate the events of Mexico’s ‘Dirty War.’ He backed down from this promise, instead appointing Ignacio Carrillo as a special prosecutor charged with taking legal action against public figures involved in crimes against humanity during that period. Despite numerous hindrances, Carrillo is still tirelessly campaigning for justice. His white whale has been Luis Echeverría, a former president of Mexico and the interior minister in 1968. Echeverría has been accused of, among other things, ordering the paramilitary units to fire on the crowds at Tlatelolco.

Earlier this month, Carrillo’s most recent effort to try Echeverría on genocide charges was stifled, as the Mexican Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of last September’s ruling that the definition of genocide had not been met and the statute of limitations had expired. Instead, they suggested an appeals court was the proper venue for the matter. Carrillo has vowed to file such an appeal, but this is merely the latest in a series of legal hurdles that have been placed in his path.

In a nation whose relationship with democracy is so tenuous and new, this travesty of justice is more than just a problem for historians. After seven decades of dictatorial rule and six years under an elected leadership that failed to achieve many of its goals, Mexicans simply do not trust their government to serve their interests. Power in any functional democratic system emanates from the people, and the fundamental cynicism toward that system currently pervading the nation will doom that system to failure.

The roadblocks placed between Echeverría and the courtroom contribute to that cynicism. Whatever subtle and nuanced legal arguments are offered, rulings that find that there can be no prescription for forced disappearances since cases remain under review until the victim is found are unconvincing. More than anything, they appear to be simply another example of the elites protecting their own. For years, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, of which Echeverría was a part, protected the welfare of rich conservatives in exchange for political support. What is there to suggest that the same elites are still not pulling the strings? A fair airing of the charges against these figures may go a long way to convince the populace that a new order is truly in control.

More importantly, an honest and open discussion may help to finally heal the wounds of those involved. Years later, many are still afraid to discuss the incidents in question. As a practical matter, this means that the families of the students have never found out what happened to their loved ones. After the massacre, many of the students went into hiding, where they remained for years and where many were caught and “disappeared.” Inquiries into the whereabouts of any of the activists were “discouraged” by the government. This has led to confusion about the death count, and to many false assumptions about who was killed and who was not. Those left behind deserve to know their relations’ final fates.

The next president of Mexico must give the estimable Carrillo the full support of the executive branch in his hunt for the truth. Whoever takes the office will have a number of options. They can work for reconstruction of the statutes of limitation to end their frequent use as obstructions in the various cases. They can make the legislation of an addition to the criminal code to govern the Dirty War crimes a top priority. Most intriguing is the possibility of adopting the South African model, an independent commission emphasizing full disclosure by offering potential defendants amnesty in exchange for testimony that sheds light on the events in question.

Whatever the course of action undertaken, it is critical that steps be taken to ensure that Luis Echeverría testify to reveal what really happened on October 2, 1968. It is of crucial importance to the families of the victims and to the future of their country.