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Winds of Change Swirling at Mexican Armed Forces' Door

September 01, 2000|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Imprisoned army Brig. Gen. Jose Francisco Gallardo this week posed a challenge sure to be among the toughest that Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox will face: Don't let the armed forces avoid the democratic transformation sweeping Mexico.

Hints of glasnost are slowly emerging within the military, Mexico's most hermetic institution. For the first time, retired generals are publicly seeking the job of defense secretary when Fox takes office Dec. 1, and other generals are endorsing them. But the calls for change go much further--to the prickly issue of greater civilian control over the security forces.

Gallardo is serving a 28-year sentence on corruption charges, which civic groups say were trumped up to cover his real crime: criticizing the army's human rights abuses. He spoke out this week from his dank jail cell via a telephone hookup to help launch a book on the armed forces in which he and another retired general wrote chapters.

"If the Fox administration does not subject the army to institutional controls, it runs the risk of not consolidating its political, economic and social proposals during the next six years," Gallardo declared. "The soldiers and politicians must understand that the army is an institution of the state, not of the government and even less an institution of the official party. The army must be respected, not feared."

The modern Mexican army was born of the divided forces that waged the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1917. The revolutionary leaders finally ended their infighting in 1929 by creating what is now the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and the army became a pillar of stability through the PRI's seven decades of presidential power. In return, the military got substantial autonomy.

In the last decade, the other two pillars of the system--the presidency and the ruling party--have gone through wrenching change, including losing to Fox in July.

Federico Anaya, a human rights lawyer who contributed to the book, said at its launch: "The presidency and bureaucracy have had to adapt, and the ruling party has stopped being the party. The problem is that we still have basically the same army that we had in 1968"--the year that soldiers opened fire on demonstrating students in Mexico City, killing as many as 300.

Mexico faces no real threat from its neighbors, and the army has played an increasing role eradicating drug crops, chasing traffickers and pursuing rural guerrillas in impoverished southern states such as Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero. The militarization of what some analysts see as police matters will be a key issue for Fox's administration.

Published by the San Francisco-based Global Exchange human rights group, the book, "Always Near, Always Far: the Armed Forces in Mexico," makes bold recommendations, including: End the secrecy over the military budget; give Congress oversight over military spending; name a civilian as defense secretary; appoint a military ombudsman with power to investigate human rights violations; and keep the army out of policing tasks.

The book was the second groundbreaking foray into secretive security issues in recent weeks. Another new book on the intelligence services had a surprising contributor: Alejandro Alegre Rabiela, director of the Center for National Investigation and Security, Mexico's intelligence agency. Alegre wrote a chapter calling for an intelligence law to create a clear legal framework for the security services, and he spoke at that book's launch.

Sergio Aguayo, a prominent critic of government security policies who teaches at the Colegio de Mexico, called Alegre's willingness to participate "a watershed."

"This is the first time in Mexican history that the director of [the intelligence agency] has appeared publicly and spoken about intelligence and what it means," Aguayo said. "It reflects the democratic opening occurring in Mexico."

Fox has said he will follow the constitutional requirement of naming a senior general as defense secretary. In July, about 80 retired generals voiced support for retired Gen. Miguel Angel Godinez, now a PRI congressman. A fellow retired general serving in Congress for the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, Luis Garfias Magana, also has said he wants the job.

Gustavo Castro, a human rights campaigner who contributed to the Global Exchange book, said he hopes that military leaders will read it. "We cannot go through this democratic process without them," he said. "They cannot remain behind."

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