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Human Rights Issues to Test Mexican President's Mettle

REMAKING MEXICO: A new president faces crucial tests in charting the future. * Second of three parts

November 29, 2000|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Whether he looks back to massacres and torture cases or forward to ending such abuses, President-elect Vicente Fox is surrounded by vexing human rights challenges. How he handles them could determine whether he succeeds in turning Mexico into a lawful nation.

Fox has promised to create a truth commission to investigate high-profile rights abuses. But he told reporters recently: "We are not going to lose ourselves in the past. We want to look to the future and achieve unity among all Mexicans."

Still, the past refuses to go away.

Rosario Ibarra, for one, remembers the details of the first unsolved disappearance on her activist group's books: Teacher Epifanio Aviles Rojas was kidnapped by the army May 18, 1969, in the poor state of Guerrero. Over the years, the list of such forced disappearances has grown to 448. They include Ibarra's own son, Jesus, an alleged guerrilla who was abducted in April 1975 and never seen again.

Ibarra, 73, has fought for 25 years to clarify these cases. "We are tired of being kicked from one office to another like a football," she said. "We are fed up with being tricked. It is psychological torture."

The legacy of the disappeared is just one of many emotional human rights issues facing Fox, the first opposition presidential candidate to defeat Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, since the party was created in 1929. Other issues range from the 1968 killing of an estimated 300 students by soldiers in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Square to the 1997 slaying of 45 unarmed peasants by a pro-government paramilitary squad in the southernmost state of Chiapas.

"We are a country full of wounds--self-inflicted wounds and wounds inflicted by the regime," said veteran human rights activist and political scientist Sergio Aguayo. "The leaders of the transition now face the challenge of deciding how far they want to go. There is a challenge of expectations. People are expecting a lot."

The pressures on Fox go far beyond matters of the past. Future issues range from addressing the dormant Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas to ensuring that citizens' rights are respected by police and the courts and that individuals guilty of abusing those rights are held accountable. Fox will be pressed to open up to international scrutiny what has long been an isolation-prone country.

To respond to all these issues, Fox has drawn together a diverse team of activists and government critics to craft a human rights agenda. And this week, he gave several of them top positions in his administration.

Among them is Mariclaire Acosta, who has spent 26 years as a national human rights campaigner. She has organized consultations with about 800 civic groups to develop civil rights plans slated to be consolidated into legislative proposals in the first six months of Fox's presidency.

If she has her way, the ferment behind the defeat of the PRI will translate into new forms of civic action that "monitor the use and abuse of power."

On Monday, Fox named Acosta special ambassador for human rights and democracy. In accepting the post, she pledged to try to close "the abyss between official rhetoric on human rights and the sad reality."

Acosta is targeting two infamous practices: torture to extract confessions and delays of a year or two before jailed suspects get a chance to appear at a probable-cause hearing.

"The great majority of human rights violations occur within the judicial system, which is designed not to uphold the law but to maintain control," she said. "The judicial system redesign has to be done with civic participation."

Acosta is optimistic because she believes the foundation of Fox's victory was growing grass-roots rejection of civil rights violations. She argues that any future government will be less able to abuse people's rights.

But as Fox takes on Mexico's culture of impunity, he will have to make hard decisions about how aggressive he can afford to be with vested interests in the military, the police and the security services, not to mention powerful criminal organizations.

"All of this is plagued with dangers--to different degrees--but all of it is very dangerous," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, another leftist activist turned Fox advisor, who was appointed this week as head of the new National Security Council. "In Mexico, the question of corruption is at least as critical as human rights because they are all tied together: impunity, corruption and human rights."

The Mexican military has long enjoyed relative independence in return for its loyalty to the PRI and could be particularly resistant to reform.

In recent years, the military role has grown steadily from one of defending the borders to include the much more complex tasks of combating drug traffickers and subduing domestic guerrillas. Fox will need to decide whether the military keeps those tasks at all.

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