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The World & Nation

Prosecutor to Probe Abuses of 'Dirty War'

Mexico: Government appoints a lawyer to investigate the disappearances of hundreds of leftist rebels in 1970s and early '80s.

January 05, 2002|SUE FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government Friday appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the disappearances of hundreds of leftist rebels in the 1970s and early 1980s, another step toward realizing President Vicente Fox's vow to punish those who committed human rights abuses.

The appointment of Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, a lawyer and academic who lost a cousin in the so-called dirty war, comes nearly six weeks after the National Human Rights Commission issued a 2,846-page report on the disappearances.

A decade in the making, the document marked the first official acknowledgment that army and police agents had methodically kidnapped, tortured and killed at least 275 people as they quashed an array of guerrilla movements.

When the report was released in November, Fox ordered his attorney general and defense minister to cooperate fully with the probe.

He also pledged to open security files compiled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, whose 71-year rule ended with Fox's 2000 election, and to appoint a five-member civilian commission to investigate rights violations.

But skepticism reigned among human rights activists Friday, many of whom scrambled to find out more about Carrillo Prieto.

"This is not encouraging," said Sergio Aguayo, a prominent human rights defender who has pressed the government to uncover the truth about the disappearances. "He is not known within the human rights community in Mexico."

Rights Group Leader Is Skeptical About Process

Oscar Gonzalez, president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights, said he was disappointed that the government did not first appoint the investigative commission, which could have helped select the prosecutor.

"It's a highly political matter, and that's why we wanted a process that was fully transparent," Gonzalez said. "We wish [Carrillo Prieto] all the best for such a difficult task; however, we are skeptical about the outcome. If he starts by going after people at the very bottom, the little soldiers instead of the top leaders like presidents, that will be a bad sign."

The appointment caps a year of speculation about what form the quest for justice would take. Fox rejected suggestions to form a truth commission like those of Argentina, Chile, and South Africa, saying that Mexico's Constitution did not permit such entities and that a special prosecutor would better ensure justice.

The prosecutor will have the power to subpoena documents and interrogate witnesses, and Fox has promised a budget and staff big enough to carry out what promises to be a daunting and politically delicate task. But the administration offered no details about those resources Friday.

Carrillo Prieto, a member of the International Assn. of Penal Law and the Mexican Academy of Penal Sciences, has served as the Interior Ministry's director of youth treatment and crime prevention. The author of many books on legal rights, including some dealing with torture and eavesdropping, he also holds a doctorate in law and works at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha, a general on leave from the military who will oversee the new prosecutor, said that Carrillo Prieto had been chosen from a field of 40 candidates.

Appointee Vows to 'Heal the Wounds'

In a brief appearance Friday, the new prosecutor vowed "to heal the wounds and thus help lay the ground for new covenants of justice and public safety."

Carrillo Prieto also has a personal connection to past atrocities: He said his cousin, Deni Prieto, was killed in 1974 after she joined a group of young insurgents. Her body was never recovered.

"We know the grief because we have shared it," Carrillo Prieto said.

Among the missing were many hard-line Communist guerrillas who attacked army and police patrols and kidnapped people for ransom. In addition to the 275 confirmed cases cited in the November report, investigators found 97 other cases in which there were indications of forced disappearances but no proof.

The report did not identify officials suspected of rights abuses, but the human rights panel's president, Jose Luis Soberanes, said investigators had identified 74 such "public servants" from 37 government agencies.

"There's no question [Carrillo Prieto] has solid academic credentials, but this job represents a huge challenge for somebody who doesn't have prosecutorial experience or specific human rights background," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. "However, I think it's important to give him the benefit of the doubt. We have to give this process a chance."

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Rafael Aguirre of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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