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Charges Made Despite Amnesty Freeing Hundreds : Human Rights Activists Accuse Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Despite the release of hundreds of Mexican political prisoners under a nationwide amnesty, human rights workers charge that the four-month-old government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has compiled a poor record in combatting rights violations.

Soon after Salinas took office Dec. 1, his administration opened Mexico’s first government human rights office and named a respected activist, Luis Ortiz Monasterio, to head it.

In February, the government declared an amnesty that admitted the existence of political prisoners after a decade of official denials, and it has freed at least 375 inmates so far. Hundreds of others are expected to be released as states amend their penal codes.

Most of the prisoners who have benefited from the amnesty had been jailed for crimes related to political battles over ownership of rural and urban land. But meanwhile, at least six other community leaders from several states have been killed, apparently in disputes with powerful landowners and provincial bosses .

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The most recent cases were those of Amado Larumbe Vazquez, a Mexican Socialist Party leader and community organizer in Acapulco shot to death March 8, allegedly by state judicial police officers, and the March 6 fatal shooting of Arturo Albores Velasco, leader of the Emiliano Zapata Farmers Assn., in his bookstore in downtown Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas state.

Racial, Class Conflict

Government officials condemn the killings, which they say are the product of racial and class conflict in underdeveloped areas with large Indian populations.

“In all states where you have agrarian conflicts there is an accumulation of human rights abuses,” Ortiz Monasterio said. “They in no way reflect a government policy.”

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But human rights activists charge that many of the mestizo, or mixed-blood, local bosses either belong to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party or have the backing of local police and civilian authorities.

In addition, rights groups point to several widely publicized cases of police abuses in recent months. Most notable was the suppression of a Christmas riot in the Nayarit state jail that left 25 dead, including at least five who had been filmed alive in police custody.

The activists suspect police involvement in the disappearance last December of Jose Ramon Garcia, a member of the leftist National Democratic Front from Cuautla, Morelos state.

Sincerity Doubted

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They doubt the government’s sincerity in resolving human rights cases and note the failure of an official investigation to turn up information on the Garcia disappearance.

“These days, the only news is bad news,” said Mariclaire Acosta, secretary general of the private Mexican Academy of Human Rights.

In another case, three people died and 12 were seriously wounded when rural police officers opened fire on townspeople during a hotly contested local election in Xoxocotla, Morelos state, on Jan. 22.

In Michoacan state, a stronghold of the Democratic Front, newspapers reported that two municipal police in civilian dress beat opposition activist Manuel Vazquez Saavedra to death March 25 at a bar in the town of Lazaro Cardenas.

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A reporter in Michoacan said the police were drunk and fled the scene after the killing. Leonel Godoy, a federal deputy for the Democratic Front, said he considers the killing to be political because it followed a meeting to organize an opposition “primary” to select candidates for a coming state legislature election.

Also in Lazaro Cardenas, three peasants were reported killed March 15 by “presumed members of the Mexican army.” Mexico City’s La Jornada newspaper reported that the victims--Artemio Vazquez Alvarez, 25, Pedro Santoyo, 23, and Jose Maria Alvarez Guevara, 38--were taken from their homes by 10 men in army uniforms.

Signs of Torture

The peasants were found dead later the same day with signs of torture; one had been castrated, according to La Jornada. Arturo Sanchez Gaytan, an official from the state attorney general’s office, said the bodies had several bullet holes, the paper reported.

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Director Ortiz Monasterio of the government human rights office said he dispatched an agent from his office to Michoacan “to express my concern to the appropriate authorities.”

He said he had no details on the case yet but indicated the victims may have been drug traffickers. Godoy, who is on his party’s human rights commission, said that was irrelevant.

“Whether or not they were drug traffickers, they were executed,” Godoy said.

A Michoacan journalist said no arrests have been made in the case.

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Ortiz Monasterio defended the government’s human rights record. He said the array of abuses reported recently indicates a growing consciousness about human rights violations and better reporting of them, rather than an increase in abuses. He said he “welcomed” the information.

Ortiz Monasterio said his office does not have the resources or authority to carry out independent investigations but instead wields influence as the often-feared agency that oversees state security.

“I put the prestige of the Interior Ministry behind a case, and generally that serves to make the local authorities feel exposed to public opinion,” he said.

The government has responded to several of the human rights cases. Eight officers were arrested on homicide charges after the Xoxocotla killings and the rural police force was disbanded. Officials arrested four men and were seeking 25 others after the Feb. 13 killing of 10 farmers in Pijijiapan, Chiapas state. The suspects, all small farm owners, allegedly attacked a community of farmers from state ejidos , or communal lands, with automatic weapons in a property dispute.

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Alleged Beating

Recently, the Mexico City attorney general’s office accused five judicial police agents of beating a suspected marijuana dealer to death during an interrogation, then dumping his body on a sidewalk in the Azcapotzalco area. The victim was Octavio Hernandez Perez.

But rights groups say the government has not done enough. “They take one step forward when they are forced, then take two steps back,” said Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, a longtime rights activist and one of the government’s harshest critics.


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