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Mexico Stubbornly Denies Its Dark Past

Denise Dresser is a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a former member of Mexico's Citizens' Advisory Committee to the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of the Past.

While many countries seek to uncover the truth about their history, Mexico seems intent on burying it. Although more than 20 countries have established effective mechanisms for dealing with their troubled pasts, Mexico’s isn’t working. Rwanda and Kosovo and Chile have recognized the criminal behavior of their former leaders, but Mexico isn’t prepared to do so. Argentina is jailing former generals, and Mexico still can’t. Today, Mexico faces the real possibility of obligatory amnesia, of forced forgetting.

The mandate of the office of the special prosecutor on “crimes of the past” -- created by President Vicente Fox -- was to discover and reveal past abuses; to determine personal and institutional responsibility; to systematize and disseminate the truth about Mexico’s dirty war in the 1960s and ‘70s, when hundreds of leftists “disappeared.” But time and again, the special prosecutor’s office has tripped over the same stone: a political and legal system that pays lip service to truth but isn’t committed to revealing it. Mexico’s political elite still believes that truth is a concession; something that can be doled out in small portions in order to keep the victims and their families at bay.

A recent ruling of Mexico’s Supreme Court -- that it was too late to bring a former president to trial -- is just another example of a legal labyrinth with few exits.

In Mexico, domestic laws still trump international treaties. Although many nations have surrendered their sovereignty to international norms on human rights, Mexico has not. So, because he had no other choice, the special prosecutor resorted to the charge of “genocide” against former President Luis Echeverria in the 1971 killings of student protesters. The prosecutor believed that perhaps crimes against humanity might be punished even if murder committed long ago could not. But the court ruled the Mexican Constitution establishes a 30-year statute of limitations that not even international treaties on genocide can void.

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This blow to the quest for truth reveals what lies at the heart of the matter. Fox may not want crimes of the past to be punished or a former president to be imprisoned for them. Fox may say that he is committed to justice, but he would actually prefer that it not take place. That is because prosecuting the past would entail taking on the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, and Fox has shown that he doesn’t have the political will to do so.

Prosecuting Echeverria would mean dismantling the old regime, and Fox would rather appease it. So, instead, he keeps sending the special prosecutor on a mission where he has been set up to fail. And fail he has. Four years after its inception, the special prosecutor’s office has been unable to successfully prosecute those who led Mexico’s dirty war, those who were responsible for its worst practices, those who tortured and kidnapped and imprisoned and abused, those who gave orders and those who obeyed them. Men like Echeverria, who continues to deny his responsibility and is well served by a judicial system that can’t prove it.

Miles of documents unearthed by the special prosecutor’s office mean nothing to judges who abide by the strict letter of the law and the statute of limitations it upholds. In Mexico, the law is being used to hang up curtains instead of opening up windows. Meanwhile, justice is becoming the plaintive demand of a group of old men whose friends were killed in Tlatelolco Plaza in 1968 or who disappeared from the streets of Mexico City in 1971.

But Mexico should not forget that it has a tortured past. Only the understanding and punishment of state-led abuses will prevent their resurgence. Only the discovery of truth will narrow the spectrum of permissible lies. As the Supreme Court should understand moving forward, “transitional justice” is not a choice; it’s an obligation.

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And as the Fox government should know, any democratic government that arrives in office after a democratic transition has an ethical obligation to explain what happened in the past. Truth is a right. It’s something the Mexican government should not be allowed to take away.


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