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Mexico Ex-Chief Faces Accusers in '71 Deaths

July 10, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Smiling and proclaiming his innocence, former President Luis Echeverria Alvarez waded into an unruly crowd of accusers Tuesday and endured shouts of "Murderer! Murderer!" after a special prosecutor grilled him about his role in a 1971 student massacre.

"Many people don't like you," a reporter told the 80-year-old former leader as scores of demonstrators jostled him on the street outside the prosecutor's office here.

"I know, man," Echeverria replied with a laugh. "I feel the same way about them."

The seven-minute mob scene was a sign of the times in Mexico, where elections in 2000 ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and the untouchable status of the nation's leaders. President Vicente Fox has appointed the prosecutor, Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, to bring former officials to justice for human rights abuses.

But it also was clear that Echeverria, who ruled from 1970 to 1976, sought Tuesday's street confrontation and relished it.

The prosecutor is hearing complaints by former student leaders--men and women now in their 50s--that Echeverria ordered the bloody repression of two student demonstrations in Mexico City. The first occurred in 1968, when Echeverria was in charge of Mexico's internal security, and the other in 1971, when he was president.

An estimated 300 people died in the first, at least 30 in the second. Both massacres were landmarks in the slow erosion of the PRI's grip on Mexico.

Echeverria made an initial appearance before Carrillo on July 2, becoming the first sitting or former Mexican president to testify as a potential defendant in a criminal complaint. He slipped in and out of the building through an underground garage to avoid demonstrators and made no comment on the hearing, which focused on the 1968 deaths.

This time, the former president was on the offensive. His lawyer, Antonio Cuellar, said before the hearing that the accusers were former guerrillas and criminals who now "want to present themselves as victims."

Salvador Martinez de la Rocca, a student leader in 1971 who attended the hearing as a prosecutor's advisor, said Echeverria may have provoked Tuesday's street scene so that he could later argue that it would be unsafe for him to appear in court again.

But Echeverria told a radio station that he welcomed the chance to clear his name under oath. He said he was eager to face one of his main accusers, Alfonso Martinez Dominguez.

Martinez was the appointed mayor of Mexico City on June 10, 1971, when a paramilitary group called the Falcons opened fire on 8,000 students who were marching to demand democratic reforms.

Echeverria fired Martinez, implicitly blaming him for the deaths. Years later, Martinez claimed that the president had orchestrated the shooting. The ex-mayor has been called to testify next Wednesday.

In Tuesday's 2 1/2-hour hearing, Echeverria sat in tense silence as the prosecutor asked him 159 questions, including: Who paid the Falcons? Why was none of them arrested? What happened to the investigation you promised?

As he did last week, the former president asked for and got 40 days to respond to the questions in writing before the prosecutor decides whether to go to trial.

Then Echeverria went outside and waved, catching his accusers off guard. "The people condemn you!" someone shouted.

Asked by a reporter whether he felt prison was near, the octogenarian replied, "It's very, very far."

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