YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The World

Mexican Court Allows Genocide Charge Against Ex-President

Echeverria is accused of ordering a 1971 attack on student protesters. Justices say the statute of limitations for the killings has not run out.

June 16, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a special prosecutor could present genocide charges against former President Luis Echeverria for his alleged role in a 1971 massacre that left many student protesters dead or missing.

In a 3-2 vote, the high court said a 30-year statute of limitations on the charges had not expired, as a judge ruled in July, because the clock had not started ticking until the leader left office in 1976.

A lower court now must decide whether the charges brought by Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto against Echeverria and former Interior Minister Mario Moya satisfy a legal definition of genocide. That could result in the issuing of arrest warrants and the case eventually coming to trial.

Echeverria, 83, a member of Mexico's once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was in office from 1970 to 1976. He is the country's only president to be indicted for alleged human rights abuses.

He has denied the charges.

His lawyer, Juan Velasquez, has dismissed the genocide charges as "an absurdity."

"There were events of repression, lamentable events, confrontations, what have you, but not a policy of exterminating the population," Velasquez said Wednesday.

Relatives and representatives of the dead and missing hailed the court decision.

"It's a great triumph for the people, for the families of the victims, for defenders of human rights, for society," said Jose Gonzalez Ruiz, a lawyer representing about 150 families of victims of the "dirty war," the Mexican government's sometimes- violent campaign against dissidents during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

However, Gonzalez Ruiz acknowledged that the broad charge of genocide may be difficult to prove and many uncertainties about the case remain. "It's a little light in a great darkness," he said of the ruling.

Rosario Ibarra, whose son, Jesus Piedra, was allegedly kidnapped and slain by members of the secret police in 1975, was skeptical of the decision's effect.

"I think that this is going to take a lot of time, and I much doubt that they are going to sentence [Echeverria]," she said.

Some legal scholars and human rights groups also doubt that it can be proved in court that the government planned the systematic destruction of the student movement in a manner constituting genocide.

The charges stem from a June 10, 1971, march by about 10,000 students near the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. Prosecutors say Echeverria ordered an attack on the peaceful protest by plainclothes government troops from an elite paramilitary group called the Halcones, or Falcons.

The government has acknowledged that 25 demonstrators were killed in what has become known as the Corpus Christi massacre, named for a feast celebrated 60 days after Easter. The indictment against Echeverria cites 45 deaths, although prosecutor Carrillo has said that as many as 80 demonstrators were killed at the event and 200 more were "disappeared," or kidnapped, and are presumed dead.

In Mexico and abroad, the case has been seen as a test of whether current President Vicente Fox can bring to light injustices committed during the seven decades of PRI rule.

The original indictment handed up by Carrillo, who was appointed by Fox, named 11 co-defendants. They included former Cabinet members and some of the generals who commanded the army units that allegedly fired on the protesters.

In its ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court said the statute of limitations had not yet run out on Echeverria and Moya because they had immunity from prosecution while in office. But the court said the other indicted officials could not be tried because they did not have immunity at the time, so the statute of limitations had expired for them.

Jesus Martin del Campo, a former leader of the student movement whose brother is among the missing, expressed a measure of disappointment that the other officials would not be brought to trial. He called the ruling a "fragmented" result for families of the victims.

But, he added, "the issue is still alive. That's the important thing."


Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times Articles