MEXICO CITY — Could an Argentine executive running Mexico's private vehicle registry be a former naval officer accused by a Spanish judge of torture and murder during Argentina's "dirty war" against dissidents?
Reforma, Mexico's premier daily newspaper, reported Thursday that it had compiled evidence suggesting that Ricardo Miguel Cavallo is really Miguel Angel Cavallo, one of 98 former officers from Argentina charged with crimes against Spanish citizens during the South American nation's last dictatorship.
In a statement to the newspaper, Cavallo denied that he had changed his name and said political foes in Mexico were trying to discredit him.
Juan Miguel Ponce Edmonson, chief of Interpol in Mexico, said Cavallo was detained later Thursday in Cancun, where his flight from Mexico City to Buenos Aires stopped to refuel. He was returned to the capital for questioning.
Edmonson said officials wanted to determine whether the Argentine had falsified his identity on his Mexican work visa application. No charges have been brought against Cavallo in Mexico, he said.
Reforma said it showed recent photos of the gray-haired Ricardo Miguel Cavallo and 20-year-old pictures of Navy Lt. Miguel Angel Cavallo to five former prisoners in Argentina. All said both sets of photos showed the man they had known at the notorious Navy School of Mechanics torture center.
At least 9,000 people in Argentina were detained and disappeared during the "dirty war" against leftist opponents of the dictatorship that ruled from 1976 to 1983, according to an Argentine human rights commission report.
In a letter sent to Reforma on Wednesday after he was confronted with the accusation, Cavallo denied that he had changed his name and noted that he had shown the newspaper's reporters his Argentine identity credential, passport and other documents.
Cavallo wrote that he would return immediately to Argentina to gather "proof of a career that has always been respectful of the law and proof of the only identity I have and have had all my life, with which I have come to work in Mexico."
He told Reforma that opponents of the vehicle registration program he is managing in Mexico apparently were out to get him.
"This project . . . has enemies, and I admire how far they are willing to go," he said. "We knew there were opposing interests, but this is too much."
The newspaper said he declined to comment on the substance of the accusation that he had taken part in the torture and killing of political prisoners.
A consortium including Cavallo's Argentine company was awarded the contract to set up the vehicle registration program, and Cavallo came to Mexico last year to manage it. The project has been mired in controversy over fees charged to car owners to register.
The Spanish case against Miguel Angel Cavallo and 97 other former officers was filed in Madrid by Judge Baltasar Garzon, who also brought charges against former Chilean ruler Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Mexico has an extradition treaty with Spain.
In Argentina, accused human rights abusers were granted amnesty by former President Carlos Menem. Only those accused of kidnapping babies from prisoners can still be charged.
The Spanish investigation, which began in 1996, accused Miguel Angel Cavallo, also known as Serpico and Marcelo, of torturing Thelma Jara de Cabezas and killing Monica Juaregui and Elba Delia Aldaya while he ran a unit at the Navy School of Mechanics in 1979 and 1980.
Reforma quoted Mario Villani, a former detainee at the school, as saying, "I'll bet my life that he is the same one. I can forget a lot of things but never the faces of those I knew during my captivity."
The paper said it had found evidence that Ricardo Miguel Cavallo and Miguel Angel Cavallo had the same Argentine identity number. The newspaper also contracted a forensic expert to compare the photos of the younger and older Cavallo, "who found sufficient similarities to conclude it was the same person."