President Vicente Fox’s government Thursday night freed an imprisoned former army general who had become a champion of human rights in Mexico.
The government commuted the 28-year sentence of Jose Francisco Gallardo after the former brigadier general had spent eight years and two months behind bars. He was arrested in 1993, and a military tribunal convicted him in 1998 of corruption and embezzlement.
Rights groups said Fox’s predecessors had trumped up those charges to justify their persecution of Gallardo for having publicly advocated creating an ombudsman post for the military to ensure that the armed forces stop abusing human rights. Amnesty International adopted Gallardo as a “prisoner of conscience.”
The nature of his release was certain to anger Gallardo and his sons, who have campaigned relentlessly on his behalf. The order in effect reduces his sentence to time already served, without declaring him innocent. The general had repeatedly said from his jail cell that he wouldn’t accept quietly a pardon or any other measure short of acquittal.
But political analysts said that by releasing Gallardo, Fox’s government demonstrated a new resolve to stamp its constitutional authority over the military, which has long acted with relative autonomy.
“The issue was the capacity of the civilian government to modify what a military tribunal had ruled. This was the fundamental question,” said Sergio Aguayo, a longtime rights activist. “The fact that Gallardo is freed means that civilian-military relations are redefined, in the sense that the military is gradually being pulled and pushed into the workings of a democratic society.”
Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda joined Interior Minister Santiago Creel in announcing Fox’s decision. That suggested the sensitivity of Gallardo’s case for the Mexican government, which has worked hard to polish its international image since Fox took office in December 2000 and ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights had called for Gallardo’s release in a harshly critical report in 1996. A hearing by the court on Gallardo’s continued detention loomed Feb. 18, which could have proved embarrassing for Fox.
One of Fox’s campaign themes was renewed respect for human rights. With Gallardo’s release, Fox now counts three significant advances on human rights. He addressed partially the demands of Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, including the release of nearly all of 97 political prisoners jailed since the 1994 uprising in that southern state. He also released two peasant ecologists from Guerrero state who had been arrested by the army and later convicted on drug charges.
Roderic Ai Camp, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College who has written extensively about the Mexican army, said Gallardo’s release “is obviously a very positive step, not just as a human rights issue but as a rights issue in terms of the military. It means Fox feels strong enough to make a decision that neither of his predecessors wanted to make.”
Camp noted that the issue was especially difficult because Fox’s attorney general, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, is an army general who was the chief military prosecutor when Gallardo was convicted. The attorney general’s office had fiercely opposed Gallardo’s appeal of his conviction. A ruling on that appeal is still pending.
But Camp added that the basic issues that Gallardo had raised have still not been addressed. Gallardo had criticized the lack of accountability of Mexican armed forces who abuse citizens rights while carrying out police functions.
Gallardo told a forum a month after Fox’s July 2000 victory that the new president would have to confront the military. “If the Fox administration does not subject the army to institutional controls, it runs the risk of not consolidating its political, economic and social proposals,” Gallardo said by telephone from his prison cell. “The army must be respected, not feared.”