Mexicans Shine Light on State’s Dark Secrets


Case by anguished case, family by tortured family, the truth is starting to surface: The Mexican army and a shadowy force of secret police systematically kidnapped, brutalized and “disappeared” hundreds of people in the 1970s as it crushed an array of leftist guerrilla movements.

A report by the National Human Rights Commission last month examined 532 cases and confirmed what Mexican society has long suspected but never proved: At least 275 people were forcibly taken away by agents of the state from 1970 to 1985, never to be seen nor heard from again.

Some of the missing were identified only in recent months, as relatives shed their fear of speaking out. The Times identified several cases of disappearances that are not even on the commission’s list or were added only in recent weeks. The new cases raise the prospect that the number of victims is significantly greater than officially reported.


The personal stories offered by survivors in some of the worst-affected areas of this secret war and by their families are jigsaw pieces that fuse into a panorama of pain merely suggested by the report’s statistics and careful legalese.

Maria Antonia Morales Serafin holds one of those pieces. Her father, Abelardo Morales Gervacio, a rebel leader in Guerrero state, was pulled off a bus in 1974 and disappeared, she said last week.

“For many years they persecuted us; we lived fleeing from the army,” she recalled, even as her relatives were giving fresh testimony to rights commission lawyers visiting her town, Atoyac de Alvarez, a onetime hotbed of anti-government activists. “I have a right as a daughter to know what happened to my father.”

“I want him alive,” Morales added, breaking into tears, “and that there be justice, according to the law. That is all I ask for.”

Beyond such human suffering stands a stark backdrop of the cost to society: how a spiraling conflict bred broad repression and postponed political reforms, changing the face of the nation in ways that people are just beginning to perceive.

The 2,846-page report, which documents pieces of the so-called dirty war for the first time, reflects the depth of change rippling through Mexico since the defeat last year of the political party that had dominated national life for 71 years. Many Mexicans blame the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, for the open wounds of the ‘70s.

Energized by the transition from PRI authority, society and its institutions are forcing open the locked doors of the nation’s secret intelligence archives, poring over tens of thousands of pages of newly declassified documents and hearing for the first time from those no longer afraid to testify.

Yet the gaps and shortcomings of the report that was 11 years in the making show how much more remains unknown. As Sergio Aguayo, a veteran rights activist, said: “All the stories contain just a fraction because you don’t know what happened to these people. The key questions remain: who, why and how? Who gave the orders, why, and how were they carried out?”

Those persistent questions have left the families of many of the missing feeling shortchanged, their frustrations of a quarter century now compounded by a report that they feel barely touches the surface of state-sponsored crimes. Their bitterness is sharpened by dismissive responses from the two Mexican presidents in power at the time.

Even the families concede, though, that the report is a critical first step on the road to truth. As one mother of the missing in Sinaloa put it: “It is the first ray of light through 24 years of darkness.”

What is not known may prove even more important--and exploring it more risky for the year-old government of President Vicente Fox. The president responded to the report with a pledge to name a special prosecutor to bring to justice those responsible for the abuses. Equally importantly, he agreed to make public the nation’s intelligence archives through 1985--millions of pages of secret files that may well implicate those still in positions of power in the crimes of the past.

Human Rights Drive Tied to ‘Rule of Law’

Fox’s pursuit of human-rights abusers is widely viewed as a central test of his broader campaign to impose the rule of law and end a culture of impunity. As he has said: “The justice that has been awaited for decades is beginning to become a reality. . . . No state interest can be above the rule of law.”

That government commitment is what is new. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, survivors and victims’ relatives had told their stories--undocumented tales of peasants rounded up from their fields, of student rebels pulled off buses, of couples dragged from their homes--and all vanishing without a trace. For just as long, PRI governments either denied such abuses, or dismissed them as the work of rogue security elements.

In page after page and case after case, the rights commission refutes a quarter century of those denials. Its vice president, Raul Plascencia, last week ranked among its most important achievements the debunking of these previous government reports, particularly one in 1979 that wrote off many of the disappeared as having been killed in clashes with police or soldiers or executed by one of their own.

Using testimony from survivors and the first outside access to the underground intelligence archives of the once-dreaded and now-defunct Federal Security Directorate in Mexico City, the report documents direct responsibility by government agents for 275 “forced disappearances.” It concludes that there are indications of such involvement in 97 more cases. In the other 160 cases examined, the investigators found no signs of government responsibility but did not rule it out.

The report does not directly accuse anyone, but it says it has identified 74 government officials as suspects in the disappearances--names and data that will be handed to the special prosecutor.

Mexico’s new spirit of openness and examining of the past, though, has yet to be embraced by the two ex-presidents most of the victims’ families blame for the abuses of the era.

Soon after the report’s release, Luis Echeverria (1970-76) and Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-82) responded publicly by saying the nation was fighting a war at the time and did what it had to do. They insisted that they had kept abuses to a minimum.

Asked about the dirty war, Lopez Portillo responded: “What dirty war?”

The Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment last week, though the Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma reported Friday that the military has begun an internal inquiry into alleged abuses, including the disappearance in the 1970s of 60 people in Guerrero.

To be sure, the guerrilla movements of the conflict’s heyday--the late 1960s through the early 1980s--were often brutal. They ambushed and killed army and police patrols; they kidnapped the wealthy and powerful; and they robbed banks to fill their war chests. They even killed their own--movement members fingered as “traitors.” And they assassinated government officials. The guerrillas are blamed for scores of deaths in the 1970s.

In all, the armed combatants in the most potent rebel groups--the September 23 Communist League and the Party of the Poor--never numbered more than 2,000. The estimates of the dead on all sides during the dirty war range from 1,300 to 1,500 people, although information is often vague and contradictory.

That toll may appear pallid beside the tens of thousands of victims from state terror elsewhere in Latin America in the same decades. But many Mexicans and the families of the disappeared say Mexico must be judged by its own standards.

“We didn’t have a Pinochet when my Carlos was taken away,” said Margarita Velazquez, referring to the Chilean dictator of the ‘70s and ‘80s and to her son, who disappeared into state custody 24 years ago at age 18. “We had a supposed democracy. We had elections. And our presidents told us we had a rule of law.

“And so, even today, I want to know: What happened to my little Carlos?”

Even today, the Human Rights Commission concedes, that is a question its voluminous report doesn’t answer.

“Is the person alive? Or not? Or where is this person?” asked the commission’s Plascencia rhetorically. The commission has no answers to such mysteries, he said.

Why do all of the report’s case studies end simply with the victim’s last known whereabouts?

“It’s because of the limitations of the investigation,” he said. “If the evidence doesn’t present itself, we cannot go further. . . . We assimilated 200,000 pages of dossiers, we have visited all the places. . . . We took more than 500 testimonials, and with all of this, we could not determine where these people are.”

For most families of the missing, that has deepened the trauma.

“The pain that does the greatest damage to the family and its spirit is the fact that the anguish has no end,” said Oscar Loza Ochoa, head of the independent Human Rights Defense Commission in Sinaloa, the northwestern state that ranked third in the nation in the number of disappeared.

“The relatives of the dead, they can mourn and put it behind them. For sure it hurts, but the pain subsides. For the relatives of the missing, it never subsides.”

Some of Disappeared Stay Officially Invisible

Then, there is the issue of the disappeared who do not appear on the commission’s list:

Martha Camacho, a 46-year-old Sinaloa teacher who was forced from her home with her husband, Jose Manuel Alapizco, 24 years ago, reappeared 60 days later. Her husband was never seen again. The commission took her testimony in 1992, but Alapizco’s name doesn’t appear in its list of missing.

In Guerrero state, where most of the cases cited by the report occurred, family members have testified that soldiers seized Raul Cabanas Tabares and his father, Eleno, from a roundup of villagers on a basketball court in Atoyac de Alvarez in October 1975. But Raul was not on the original commission list; he was included only in an addendum after his brother Erasmo filed a formal complaint in October.

In all, some human rights and survivor groups estimate the number of missing to be closer to 800--1 1/2 times what the commission lists.

Plascencia’s response: The commission, by law, only investigates and reports cases formally filed before the panel. And in most of those cases, relatives said they did not file because they didn’t know they had to.

His relatives believe “All of the case studies are the result of complaints presented to us,” he said. “If someone did not file a formal complaint, they were not included.”

Other families of the missing remain scornful of the commission and of Fox because, they assert, the report did little more than repeat testimony they had given through the years. They include mothers such as Rosario Ibarra, who leads the pioneering Eureka activist group for the missing.

“In the end, they compiled what Eureka had already gathered,” said Ibarra’s daughter, Rosario Piedra Ibarra. “But what have they done? Nothing. They haven’t said who the suspects are. It’s a game, and it continues to be a farce.”

That’s too harsh, the commission and its backers insist: What the report accomplishes is to sketch publicly, for the first time, additional details of what happened to the missing after their disappearance. Also important, they note, is the mere fact that it officially acknowledges the missing.

And what emerges from those accounts, combined with The Times’ interviews with relatives, survivors and witnesses--some speaking out for the first time--is a chilling picture of an orchestrated series of illegal operations designed by the state to match the terror of its enemy. The interviews took place in the Federal District and the states of Guerrero, Sinaloa and Nuevo Leon.

Hundreds of people were seized from their homes or grabbed off the streets. Many were caught spray-painting communist slogans or passing out propaganda. Handcuffed and blindfolded, they were dragged into a network of clandestine state prisons and “safe houses.” There, pregnant women were brutalized, and young men were paralyzed with electric shocks and slammed with such force into walls that they would shake.

To this day, those roundups, disappearances and torture sessions haunt thousands of parents, sisters, brothers and children.

Finding the answers they seek now falls to the special prosecutor and to the five-member civilian commission that Fox said he will appoint to support the prosecutor’s office.

The president no doubt knows that the targets of such a probe will be found in two sectors of society whose support he badly needs. One is the PRI, which still holds the largest number of seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Its support is critical to Fox if he is to enact other vital reforms.

It may work in Fox’s favor that he chose the potentially narrower route of a special prosecutor to pursue individual crimes rather than that of a truth commission, like those that operated in Argentina and South Africa. Such commissions have tended to assess political as well as legal responsibility for rights violations.

The other institutional pillar under Fox is the army, which no doubt will be blamed for many abuses; its officers are cited anonymously in many of the rights commission’s case studies. It was no coincidence that the defense minister, an army general, was seated beside Fox for his announcement of the special prosecutor’s investigation into the disappeared.

Aguayo, the rights activist and academic, said the conflict and repression of the 1970s “decapitated an entire political class. That was the cost for my generation: Either you joined the system or you rebelled. The economic and political reforms we needed were postponed for a generation.”

What lies ahead may be equally trying--and costly, he said.

The goal of the next phase of the investigation, he added, “is to come to terms with the past without remorse and without revenge. . . . It will be critical for redefining civilian-military relations. In fact, we are redefining the future of Mexico through this process of understanding the past.”


Smith reported from Mexico City and Guerrero state and Fineman reported from Mexico City and Culiacan. Times staff writer Hector Tobar, researcher Rafael Aguirre and special correspondent Jorge Torres also contributed to this report from Mexico City. Staff writer Geoffrey Mohan contributed from Monterrey.