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Mexico Seen Expertly Silencing Voices of Dissent : Latin America: Rights activists, others say government tactics range from obvious to subtle.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a classic ritual of seduction: a five-hour lunch in one of the capital’s finest restaurants, pleasant conversation from a top national security official--and an offer “to join the great historical project” of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

But human rights activist Sergio Aguayo was not buying it. He turned down a third-tier job in the national security apparatus, but did agree to write an academic paper for a government-sponsored conference, for which he would receive an honorarium. Then he said he would persist in organizing Civic Alliance, a nationwide system of election monitors.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 6, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 6, 1995 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexico human rights: Because of an error by the Associated Press, Mexican human rights activist Sergio Aguayo was misidentified in editions of July 30. Aguayo is pictured above.
PHOTO: Sergio Aguayo
PHOTOGRAPHER: Associated Press

The official, so cordial at first, called Aguayo a traitor to his country. “It was a threat,” Aguayo says, “a surprisingly direct threat from someone at that level.”

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Such is the price of dissent in Mexico. The government’s methods for restraining the news media--advertising, bribes, controls over newsprint and broadcast licenses--are well known here. Less publicized are the ways in which officials stifle intellectuals, social activists and other potential critics.

The government traditionally has tolerated criticism by intellectuals as long as it was confined to academic papers and newspaper columns, where ideas circulate among “the 200 of us who read each other,” as one wag jokes.

But increasingly, intellectuals are stepping out of their ivory towers and acting on their ideas. They speak out on drive-time radio and at public rallies. They head civic groups that insist on clean elections or respect for human rights and the environment. They are inspiring judges, labor leaders and other citizens to talk openly about what is wrong in Mexico.

Recent reminders of how high the price of speaking out can be have led many Mexicans to fear that a crackdown is coming.

Last month, three foreign priests were deported--accused of fomenting rebellion in the troubled, southernmost state of Chiapas. And Abraham Polo Uscanga, an outspoken appeals court judge, was slain after he said publicly that officials had tried to sway his rulings in high-profile cases.

“When Polo Uscanga was killed, people got nervous,” says political analyst Denise Dresser.

No one has been arrested in the killing.

Despite the failure of police to link the death to any officials--or perhaps because of it--Polo Uscanga’s slaying has had a chilling effect on dissent, observers say.

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“Murder in Mexico is committed by insinuation,” says Homero Aridjis, an author and environmentalist. “Bosses do not say, ‘Kill this fellow.’ They say, ‘This fellow bothers me,’ and their subordinates are expected to understand.”

Pressure on the government’s critics usually stops short of homicide. If analysts and activists cannot be co-opted, opponents try to isolate or discredit them.

Mexico “is not like other countries that are openly repressive,” Aridjis says. “But the result is very oppressive. One of the most complicated things about the Mexican system is its ambiguity. The control is not uniform. You never know where it comes from.”

Not all socially active intellectuals are convinced that controls exist.

“I do not know in what way people feel they are hurt,” says Jose Woldenberg, a writer known for his advocacy of clean elections and voting reforms. “A good number of leaders in non-governmental organizations also write newspaper columns, and I cannot see where their careers have been hurt. On the contrary.”

Affronts against dissidents are usually subtle and often explainable as error or oversight: invitations not received, prizes not awarded, promotions not given. There is little proof of repression.

“Being excluded from an event is not censorship,” concedes Aguayo, but the effect is the same: “It prevents others from hearing what you have to say.”

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Aridjis says he has “never had a direct response to my environmental activism. They always attack me as a writer.”

Aridjis’ name was left off the list of the Mexican delegation to the Frankfurt Book Fair recently, excluding him from activities connected with that major international publishing event. And Mexican publishing houses have printed three of his books, then not distributed them, even though they sold well outside Mexico, Aridjis said.

Besides subjecting outspoken people to telephones that repeatedly go dead and other such irritations that are not unusual in Mexico, the government actively attempts to discredit critics, many intellectuals say.

“The first thing they try to do is cast doubt on your independence,” Dresser explains.

Dresser learned that early in her academic career. Her doctoral dissertation examined the political aspects of Solidarity, the government anti-poverty program that launched the presidential candidacy of the late Luis Donaldo Colosio. She was immediately labeled as being in league with--even romantically involved with--another presidential hopeful.

“That shed doubt not only on my academic independence but also on my personal independence,” she recalls.

Sometimes, officials attempt to compromise analysts and activists, as one did with Aguayo. “They try to trap you,” says Aguayo. “They plan it like a seduction, looking for your weaknesses: women, money, the trappings of power or honors. Once they have corrupted you, you become worthless.”

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Charges of corruption in connection with government contracts were used earlier this year to jail leaders of the municipal bus drivers union, who also headed the Independent Proletarian Movement, or MPI. The MPI organized protest marches by disaffected citizens and in support of the guerrillas in Chiapas. The men’s dual roles raised questions about the real motives for their arrest, especially because nobody on the government side of the contracts was jailed.

Attempts to discredit dissidents are often just the beginning of a campaign against them.

In the case of political analyst Jorge Castaneda, a well-informed political insider who frequently criticizes administration policy, the government told reporters he was a member of an opposition political party, which he denies. Then, he began to receive death threats.

Castaneda continues to write commentary in major Mexican and U.S. publications, including the Los Angeles Times, but is far less available to reporters for comments in news stories than he was in the past. He could not be reached for comment.

Increasingly, independent thinkers are finding ways to protect themselves.

First, says Aguayo, “economic independence is important. I live on my salary as a professor and what I write. That is not easy.”

Publishing and speaking outside Mexico also provide forums for ideas that might be more difficult to promote inside the country and help build international reputations that can be helpful.

But that has drawbacks. “There is still the attitude that you shouldn’t betray your country by writing anything critical,” says Dresser.

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Activists also fight isolation by building their own support groups. Aridjis founded the Group of 100, an organization of intellectuals concerned about the environment. Besides Civic Alliance, Aguayo helped start the Mexican Human Rights Academy and independent publications such as Este Pais magazine and La Jornada daily newspaper.

After the five-hour lunch at which Aguayo felt threatened, he reported the incident to both the academy and the editor of La Jornada, as well as to the government’s National Human Rights Commission. He believes that letting others know about the threat provides him with some protection.

“Over the past 20 to 30 years, we have been winning the battle to open a space for free expression,” says Aguayo. “This does not mean that we have defeated authoritarianism. But we have had a spring of free expression. I hope it is a prelude to a more democratic country.”

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