Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Massacre charges filed against former president of Mexico

REUTERS , MEXICO CITY

In an unprecedented step toward punishing government atrocities of the past, former Mexican president Luis Echeverria has been charged with ordering a 1971 massacre of student protesters.

Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo filed genocide charges against Echeverria, 82, on Thursday night. He is the first former president in Mexico's modern history to face indictment.

"No one is above the law," Carrillo said on Friday.

Investigators say Echeverria backed a paramilitary band that descended on student protesters with guns, clubs and chains on June 10, 1971 in Mexico City, as part of systematic government brutality against dissidents.

Carrillo said he had documented the killings of 12 people that night although he said at a news conference that "dozens" had died. Rights groups say some 40 people were killed in the attack.

Echeverria says he was not responsible for the 1971 attack or other violence.

A judge has until Saturday morning to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Echeverria, who was president from 1970 till 1976, the height of a dirty war against dissidents in which hundreds of activists died or disappeared at the hands of government security forces.

Echeverria's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 years before being defeated in 2000 by President Vicente Fox. The charge against Echeverria is Fox's most dramatic achievement to date in challenging longstanding official impunity.

"The special prosecutor has done something that for years would have been unthinkable in Mexico," said Daniel Wilkinson of the US-based Human Rights Watch.

"For over 30 years, Mexicans have known there was some official responsibility, and I don't think people ever thought charges would be pressed against ... a former president," he said.

If convicted, Echeverria could get 20 to 40 years in prison. In Mexico, the genocide charge can apply if victims were targeted as members of a group, such as the student movement.

Leaders of the PRI, now the main opposition party, have closed ranks around Echeverria.

"The so-called dirty war is a government smoke screen that seeks to take us back to the past and risks our institutions and the state itself," party president Roberto Madrazo said.

Hundreds of leftists were abducted, tortured and killed by Mexican security forces from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, although the violence did not match that of military regimes in Argentina and Chile.

In 1968, days before the Olympic Games opened in Mexico City, troops opened fire on students in a downtown plaza, killing as many as 300 people.

Echeverria is being investigated in that incident, which caused an international stir. Carrillo has said charges in that case would come soon.

Echeverria and his lawyers say the paramilitary group involved in the 1971 attack was at the command of the Mexico City mayor at the time, who has since died.

They argue that a statute of limitations on the crimes has expired and the genocide charge is invalid.

An aide to the former president said he remained in the capital on Friday, "going about his business."

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