MEXICO CITY — Case by anguished case, family by tortured family, the truth is starting to surface: The Mexican army and a shadowy force of secret police systematically kidnapped, brutalized and "disappeared" hundreds of people in the 1970s as it crushed an array of leftist guerrilla movements.
A report by the National Human Rights Commission last month examined 532 cases and confirmed what Mexican society has long suspected but never proved: At least 275 people were forcibly taken away by agents of the state from 1970 to 1985, never to be seen nor heard from again.
Some of the missing were identified only in recent months, as relatives shed their fear of speaking out. The Times identified several cases of disappearances that are not even on the commission's list or were added only in recent weeks. The new cases raise the prospect that the number of victims is significantly greater than officially reported.
The personal stories offered by survivors in some of the worst-affected areas of this secret war and by their families are jigsaw pieces that fuse into a panorama of pain merely suggested by the report's statistics and careful legalese.
Maria Antonia Morales Serafin holds one of those pieces. Her father, Abelardo Morales Gervacio, a rebel leader in Guerrero state, was pulled off a bus in 1974 and disappeared, she said last week.
"For many years they persecuted us; we lived fleeing from the army," she recalled, even as her relatives were giving fresh testimony to rights commission lawyers visiting her town, Atoyac de Alvarez, a onetime hotbed of anti-government activists. "I have a right as a daughter to know what happened to my father."
"I want him alive," Morales added, breaking into tears, "and that there be justice, according to the law. That is all I ask for."
Beyond such human suffering stands a stark backdrop of the cost to society: how a spiraling conflict bred broad repression and postponed political reforms, changing the face of the nation in ways that people are just beginning to perceive.
The 2,846-page report, which documents pieces of the so-called dirty war for the first time, reflects the depth of change rippling through Mexico since the defeat last year of the political party that had dominated national life for 71 years. Many Mexicans blame the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, for the open wounds of the '70s.
Energized by the transition from PRI authority, society and its institutions are forcing open the locked doors of the nation's secret intelligence archives, poring over tens of thousands of pages of newly declassified documents and hearing for the first time from those no longer afraid to testify.
Yet the gaps and shortcomings of the report that was 11 years in the making show how much more remains unknown. As Sergio Aguayo, a veteran rights activist, said: "All the stories contain just a fraction because you don't know what happened to these people. The key questions remain: who, why and how? Who gave the orders, why, and how were they carried out?"
Those persistent questions have left the families of many of the missing feeling shortchanged, their frustrations of a quarter century now compounded by a report that they feel barely touches the surface of state-sponsored crimes. Their bitterness is sharpened by dismissive responses from the two Mexican presidents in power at the time.
Even the families concede, though, that the report is a critical first step on the road to truth. As one mother of the missing in Sinaloa put it: "It is the first ray of light through 24 years of darkness."
What is not known may prove even more important--and exploring it more risky for the year-old government of President Vicente Fox. The president responded to the report with a pledge to name a special prosecutor to bring to justice those responsible for the abuses. Equally importantly, he agreed to make public the nation's intelligence archives through 1985--millions of pages of secret files that may well implicate those still in positions of power in the crimes of the past.
Human Rights Drive Tied to 'Rule of Law'
Fox's pursuit of human-rights abusers is widely viewed as a central test of his broader campaign to impose the rule of law and end a culture of impunity. As he has said: "The justice that has been awaited for decades is beginning to become a reality. . . . No state interest can be above the rule of law."
That government commitment is what is new. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, survivors and victims' relatives had told their stories--undocumented tales of peasants rounded up from their fields, of student rebels pulled off buses, of couples dragged from their homes--and all vanishing without a trace. For just as long, PRI governments either denied such abuses, or dismissed them as the work of rogue security elements.