The Mexican Supreme Court on Wednesday gave a major boost to the government's efforts to bring so-called dirty-war criminals to justice by ruling that there was no statute of limitations on prosecuting those believed responsible for the kidnappings and disappearances of leftists in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The ruling is expected to revive the efforts of President Vicente Fox's government to go after those believed responsible for as many as 520 kidnappings and "forced disappearances" of Mexican dissidents. Until Wednesday, many of the cases had been hamstrung by 15-to-30-year limits on prosecutions.
The kidnappings were carried out by secret government agents to snuff out leftist insurgencies and were, witnesses said, done with the approval of top Mexican officials. Many victims are believed to have been tortured and killed at secret military jails and their bodies dumped into the ocean.
In Wednesday's decision, the court specifically ruled that a special prosecutor's abduction indictment against 78-year-old Miguel Nazar Haro -- the former head of Mexico's secret police -- and two others could go forward because the alleged crime had "a permanent character."
Commenting on the ruling, Supreme Court Judge Juventino Castro said, "All crimes that affect liberty constitute permanent crimes."
Nazar, Luis de la Barreda Moreno and Juventino Romero Cisneros were charged in the 1975 disappearance of Jesus Piedra, who was allegedly snatched from a Monterrey street by seven state judicial police and severely tortured before disappearing. Nazar was then deputy chief of the now-disbanded Federal Security Directorate.
The case against Nazar had stalled on questions about whether he could be tried 28 years after the alleged crime. Special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, who was named by Fox in January 2002, requested an arrest warrant for Nazar in July, but a judge in Monterrey refused to honor it, citing the statute of limitations.
Wednesday's ruling was expected to revive the case and could lead to Nazar's arrest.
The victim's mother, Rosario Ibarra, 76, a leading advocate for families of those who disappeared, said in a phone interview that she was hopeful justice would be done in her son's case but that she was worried the evidence had grown too cold.
The court has not yet ruled on a parallel case involving the 1968 killing of hundreds of protesters by government troops in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City.
Jorge Chabat, an international studies professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City, said the ruling was "historic and one of the most important and positive things that have happened in Mexico in many years.
"It will help produce some justice in a country where justice has almost never existed."
Campaigning for the presidency in 2000, Fox pledged to pursue dirty-war wrongdoers and end impunity. To fulfill that, he created a special prosecutor's office in 2001 to investigate the events and ordered millions of secret dossiers be made public.
But prosecutorial efforts slowed because of the statute of limitations issue and limited resources. The annual budget is about $500,000; only five investigators are combing through the declassified but un-indexed files stored at a former prison.
Human Rights Watch issued a "divided" report on Fox's human rights performance in July, praising him for naming a special prosecutor but criticizing him for allocating inadequate resources to the effort.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch Americas specialist Dan Wilkinson hailed the ruling as a "green light" to go forward with atrocity cases but said Mexico still had much work ahead in bringing dirty-war suspects to trial.
"You need evidence, and to get evidence you need investigative work," Wilkinson said by telephone from New York. "They have a low budget for an office pursuing hundreds of difficult cases going through thousands and thousands of files."
They're also hampered by time: Nearly 30 years have passed since some of the alleged crimes, and witnesses are dying and the memories of others are fading.
Jose Enrique Gonazalez, a Mexico City lawyer who represents 150 families of people who disappeared, said that the court's ruling was an important step but that more tough decisions were to come involving the jurisdiction of the cases.
Gonzalez noted, for instance, that two generals charged with dirty-war crimes, Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Francisco Quiroz Hermosillo, now sit in a military prison. They should be handed over to civil authorities, Gonzalez said, to ensure that they don't get special treatment from the army.
The kidnappings, torture and killings, analysts said, were emblematic of the lack of accountability during the seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ended in 2000 when Fox, of the National Action Party, took power.
"This shows the independence of the judicial system," Chabat said. "This will help punish some criminals and then close one of the darkest moments in Mexico's past."