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Mexico's Cause Is Vanishing

The first case in the 'dirty war' investigation has begun. But the quest for justice may falter without stronger presidential backing.

September 04, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — It has been more than two decades since Miguel Nazar Haro last fixed his cold blue eyes on terrified prisoners -- eyes that still haunt the survivors.

Now the inquisitor of Mexico's "dirty war" is facing his own interrogators. A brutal era is on trial, and they want him to explain how several hundred leftist detainees disappeared in the 1970s and early '80s.

But those eyes are as impassive and unblinking as ever, giving nothing away.

Nazar, 78, is a defiant, unrepentant target of the first criminal case filed by President Vicente Fox's special prosecutor for past atrocities by the state. The long-retired chief of the secret police not only denies that any of his prisoners was tortured or murdered, he also condemns the entire investigation as a distortion of history.

"What kind of war did Mexico have? Why was it dirty?" he lectured a Mexican journalist before sitting stone-faced through an inquiry by special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, who later indicted him for abduction. "A communist group that was trained abroad -- subversives, soldiers of fortune ... believed they could take over Mexico." Having failed, he said, they are now helping the prosecutor to punish those who "saved the country."

Nazar is the latest former official called in for questioning about the dirty war and the first to speak out against the effort to review it. But as the former cop boldly defends the past, his pursuers fear that Fox already appears to be losing interest, leaving the prosecutor with scant support to build his cases.

Fox's decision in November 2001 to create the prosecutor's office won praise at home and abroad. The rancher whose election had ended seven decades of imperious rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party was still in his first year of office, and hopes were high that he would strip away the official secrecy and impunity shrouding the former regime's lethal excesses, bringing the killers to justice.

No Breakthrough Yet

Nearly two years later, however, the investigation has yet to produce a breakthrough. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch warned that "the whole exercise could collapse" unless Fox takes "aggressive measures" to give Carrillo's office more funding, easier access to national security archives and better cooperation from the armed forces.

The president has declined to comment on the report or meet with representatives of the independent New York-based rights group. The topic all but slipped off the official agenda last month when Mariclaire Acosta, an architect of Fox's early policies, was fired as deputy foreign minister for human rights and her post abolished.

Fox has fallen short on other promises as well, and voters dealt his National Action Party a punishing vote of no confidence in the July congressional elections. In his annual state-of-the-nation speech Monday night, he acknowledged a "widespread social call for deeper and more dynamic change," especially to ease poverty and create jobs.

A former advisor to the government said Fox is "uncomfortable" with probing the crimes of the old regime because he needs the support of the former ruling party, which still dominates Congress, to achieve his top priority: an economic overhaul that would boost private investment and government income.

"Inside the administration, I do not see a powerful champion for digging up the truth about the past or meting out justice," said Sergio Aguayo, a leading Mexican human rights advocate. "Without such backing, the prosecutor is unlikely to get any cooperation from the military or the courts."

Interior Minister Santiago Creel insisted in an interview that the administration was "pushing these cases with all the arguments we have at our disposal" and dismissed the idea that it was politically risky to do so.

But Carrillo's first indictment is widely viewed as a gamble that could boost his authority -- helping him prosecute dozens of other policemen, soldiers and former officials, including an ex-president -- or cripple his entire mission. The case, involving the disappearance of a captured guerrilla 28 years ago, rests on evidence and arguments that some lawyers see as too weak to sway a conservative judiciary. One judge already has tried to throw out the case.

A Well-Known Cast

More than a legal battle, it is a historical and political drama with a cast of nationally known figures: Nazar was the most visible and notorious leader of the government crackdown, which crushed a lightly armed communist movement in the cities and a ragtag leftist insurgency in the countryside. He moved between the public spotlight and secret detention cells; several surviving prisoners say he took part in interrogations.

His alleged victim, communist militant Jesus Piedra, is the poster boy of Mexico's desaparecidos, the prisoners who disappeared. His portrait stares from placards at street rallies in support of the prisoners and is so well known in Mexico that, like Che Guevara's, it needs no identifying inscription.

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