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Facing the Music in Mexico

July 09, 2002

Throughout its long and complex history, Mexico has treated its leaders as if they were above the law. The government never held accountable even the many whose terms ended in shame. That's changing.

In the past, prosecutors questioned former Mexican presidents suspected of corruption or even complicity in politically motivated slaughter only as witnesses against others. Last week, for the first time, the government forced a former president--Luis Echeverria--to confront his past.

For 6 1/2 hours, a special prosecutor peppered Echeverria with citizens' allegations and questions concerning his role in the events of Oct. 2, 1968. That day, the army and still unidentified gunmen opened fire on demonstrating students trapped in a closed public square in the Mexico City neighborhood of Tlatelolco. Authorities said the fusillade killed as many as 100 people. Victims' relatives and witnesses put the number higher.

This was Mexico's worst modern massacre. Echeverria, president from 1970 to 1976, was the minister in charge of internal security at the time of the 1968 killings, so grilling him should provide insight into what happened.

The nation also awaits his response to the special prosecutor's questions about an incident that took place while he was president. On June 10, 1971, thugs on the government payroll killed at least 30 students during a march protesting against government repression.

The special prosecutor is summoning members of Echeverria's Cabinet as well. Like Echeverria, many of them face lawsuits for participating in the "dirty war" from 1970 to 1980, during which government agents killed or "disappeared" thousands of suspected guerrillas.

Citizens and relatives of the victims set in motion Mexico's current openness by refusing to forget and forgive. For more than three decades, presidents offered empty promises.

President Vicente Fox listened to the call of the people and appointed a special prosecutor to investigate. His administration has opened to the public millions of government security documents and shepherded through the Mexican Congress a freedom-of-information law that bars the government from withholding any official document describing "grave violations" of human rights.

Forcing Echeverria and other leaders to face their actions in public does more than fill in ugly gaps of a period that for Mexicans remains painfully raw. It shows a nation finally committed to full democracy.

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