MEXICO CITY — A judge dismissed Mexico's highest-profile human rights case Tuesday, ruling that a special prosecutor's charge of genocide against former President Luis Echeverria and his interior minister in the 1971 slayings of dozens of student marchers did not fit the crime.
The decision was a double setback for President Vicente Fox. It ended more than a year of efforts to hold the former ruling party's oldest surviving leader responsible for the bloody paramilitary attack that became known as the Corpus Christi massacre.
It also dealt a blow to government plans to prosecute Echeverria for other alleged atrocities during the autocratic and often corrupt rule of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. Fox, whose election in 2000 ended 71 years of PRI control, had made punishing past human rights abuses a priority of his administration. Last July, Echeverria became the country's only former or current president ever indicted on such allegations.
"We were thrashed," said the prosecutor, Ignacio Carrillo Prieto. He said the government had no legal recourse to appeal the ruling by Judge Herlinda Velasco, who rejected its petition to order the 83-year-old former president's arrest.
Besides pursuing the 1971 case, Carrillo has spent the last several months preparing new genocide charges against Echeverria and about two dozen former military and civilian officials in a 1968 student massacre in Mexico City, the bloodiest single incident of repression under the PRI.
In a brief meeting with reporters late Tuesday, the prosecutor said he would soon proceed with that case. But he would not say how, in light of Velasco's ruling, he expected to prevail.
Echeverria was serving as interior minister and was in charge of the country's internal security in October 1968 when a military unit opened fire on students who had gathered in a downtown plaza to demand greater freedom of expression. Hundreds were killed or wounded, fueling an era of social unrest. The massacre on the eve of the Olympic Games here became a turning point in Mexico's struggle for democracy.
In June 1971, six months into Echeverria's six-year presidential term, students with a variety of grievances tried to revive their anti-government movement with a march near Mexico City's National Polytechnic Institute. The indictment against Echeverria says 45 students were killed in the attack by plainclothes government troops with an elite paramilitary group called the Falcons, although the prosecutor says as many as 80 died.
Government investigators and human rights activists allege that Echeverria helped plan both deadly assaults -- accusations the former president denies.
But the immediate issue before the courts in the 1971 case was the prosecutor's decision to charge him and former Interior Minister Mario Moya with genocide.
Carrillo had little choice. The statute of limitations on homicide expired in 1985. After nearly a year of legal arguments, the Supreme Court ruled last month that the 30-year limitation on genocide had not run its course because the clock had started ticking only when the two men left office in 1976 and lost their legal immunity from prosecution.
Tuesday's ruling rejected the prosecutor's assertion that the massacre was an act of genocide, which under Mexican and international law is defined as an attempt to wipe out an entire national, ethnic or religious group. The prosecutor had argued that the massacre stemmed from a government policy to use deadly violence against widespread student dissent.
The judge ruled that the students in the 1971 march did not constitute such a group because they had gathered for different motives.
Carrillo criticized the decision in a written statement, saying that it focused on technicalities while missing the historic importance of the case and was flawed by procedural "deficiencies."
Some survivors of the massacre called the ruling a demonstration of the lingering power of the PRI, which has used its muscle as an opposition party to protect its former leaders. Other Latin American countries, notably Argentina and Chile, have broken the impunity of former military dictators whose regimes killed thousands of unarmed foes in the 1970s and '80s.
In Mexico "the network of complicity and friendships is still in place," said Jesus Martin del Campo, who participated in the 1971 march along with a brother who was killed in the assault. "The judge became an accomplice of Echeverria. This is very disappointing."
Martin del Campo said that he and other relatives of the victims were planning to take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in an effort to oblige Mexico to rehear it.
But some human rights lawyers abroad and in Mexico said the prosecutor had a weak case. Echeverria's regime, they said, does not compare with the Nazi Holocaust or the 1994 mass slaughter in Rwanda.