Responding to pressure from opposition political parties and human rights groups, Mexico's government has accepted the resignation of the capital's police intelligence chief Miguel Nazar Haro--a fugitive from U.S. justice--and announced an amnesty that recognizes the existence of political prisoners in Mexico.
Since his appointment to the Mexico City police post in December, Nazar has repeatedly been accused by human rights activists of having tortured prisoners and caused the disappearance of political opponents when he headed the Federal Security Bureau in the 1970s.
His appointment also was controversial in the United States, where he was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1982 on car theft and conspiracy charges.
Until now, government officials have defended Nazar, 64, as one of the best police investigators in Mexico. On Friday, sources said Nazar was asked to step down.
"He was weak from the beginning, fundamentally because of internal pressure, but also because of the consequences his appointment had externally," a government source said.
Some observers speculated that Nazar's resignation, submitted Thursday night, also may be tied to a March 1 certification hearing scheduled in the U.S. Senate on Mexico's progress in efforts to combat narcotics trafficking. A government witness in a San Diego trial of seven cocaine traffickers has testified that Nazar protected drug-smuggling operations and profited from the sale of confiscated narcotics while serving in the federal security agency.
The resignation came as President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced a plan to pardon more than 400 prisoners convicted of crimes "deriving from social and political motives."
Salinas personally pardoned one prisoner, poet Israel Gutierrez Hernandez, and asked the country's 32 governors to issue pardons for political prisoners in their state jails. In addition, he said he would ask his nation's congress to reform the penal code to permanently allow for the granting of pardons.
The pardon announcement marks the first time in 10 years that the government has recognized the existence of political prisoners in Mexico. In 1978, President Jose Lopez Portillo gave amnesty to nearly 1,500 detainees, but since then, the government has denied holding any political prisoners.
A statement by Salinas' office said the pardon "responds to the commitment made last Dec. 1 when, in his inaugural speech, (Salinas) emphasized the need to strengthen national unity; it constitutes a concrete response to petitions from different social and political organizations in our country. . . ."
Salinas, the first Mexican president to face a strong leftist opposition, has called for a national dialogue to debate electoral and other democratic reforms.
Director Luis Ortiz Monasterio of the government's newly formed human rights office said pardons eventually could be granted to about 1,200 prisoners. He said the 402 prisoners already identified as eligible for pardons will be freed beginning next week.
Ortiz Monasterio said in an interview that 80% of the prisoners to be released were jailed for crimes related to political battles over land ownership in rural areas and poor urban settlements.
"There is a distinct concept of human rights in each region of the country according to its level of development. Especially in Indian areas, there are deep-rooted traditions of impunity that are aggravated by social struggles for land," Ortiz Monasterio said.
As for the government's recognition of political prisoners, he said, "This country has changed radically in recent years. The habit of denying the obvious was archaic and has been suspended. . . . The state is sending a very clear message that it will confront the phenomenon of human rights abuses."
Human rights workers reacted cautiously to the pardon announcement, noting that it did not cover Mexico's two best known political prisoners. Amanda Arceniego, 38, and Heladio Torres, 32, members of the Liga 23 de Septiembre guerrilla movement of the 1970s, will not be pardoned because they were convicted of homicide, officials said.
Pardons do not include people convicted of murder, rape or drug trafficking.
Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, head of the leftist Revolutionary Workers Party and leader of a group of families of the so-called disappeared people, said the names of many political prisoners do not appear on the list. She said poet Gutierrez was singled out by Salinas because he is internationally known for his verse and is a member of the PEN writers organization.
Ibarra and other human rights activists are also pressing for the government to recognize the disappearance of political opponents during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ibarra puts their number at more than 500.
"This pardon is good, but I hope it is the first step of a real policy of respect for human rights and is not just cosmetic," said Mariclaire Acosta, director of the independent Mexican Human Rights Academy.
"Until there is a recognition that there are disappeared (people)--an investigation of those who died and the reappearance of those who are alive--you cannot talk about full respect for human rights," she said.
Many of the people that Ibarra and Acosta refer to disappeared while Nazar was in charge of internal security at the Federal Security Bureau. While there, Nazar was a leader of the Brigada Blanca, an interagency task force established to fight the Liga 23 guerrilla movement. Activists say the task force was responsible for torture and disappearances.
While the Salinas government is making advances in the area of human rights with such steps as Ortiz Monasterio's appointment and the newly announced pardons, rights workers say there also has been an apparent increase in abuses.