Monday, February 14, 2005
joins list of accused
From Mexico to Tierra del Fuego it’s becoming
dangerous to be a former Latin American president, even, perhaps especially, for those who survive to a ripe old age.
It all started with Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean
dictator in the 1970s and 80s. Now nearing the age of 90, he has been harassed, pilloried and stripped of much of the legal
immunity he used to enjoy as a former president.
Five years ago Pinochet was accused of human rights
violations perpetrated during nearly a decade of political repression. Later he faced money-laundering and illicit enrichment
charges, and last week he was back in the news with allegations of murder.
Hernan Quezada, the lawyer seeking to pin the latest
charges on him, is investigating Pinochet’s role in the 1974 killing of 119 leftists.
Since Pinochet’s troubles began, an epidemic
of legal actions against former Latin American presidents has broken out. Nowhere has this trend blossomed more intensely
than in Central America, where four ex-presidents are under a legal cloud.
Arnoldo Aleman of Nicaragua is in prison, convicted
on charges of corruption. Alfonso Portillo ducked out of Guatemala to avoid a similar fate weeks after his presidential term
— and his legal immunity — expired in January 2004. He currently lives in Mexico.
Two former Costa Rican presidents — Rafael
Angel Calderon (1990-94) and Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1998-2002) — are in custody pending corruption-related investigations.
Rodriguez faced the added humiliation of having to resign as head of the Organization of American States to return home to
So far, former Argentine President Carlos Menem,
who fled to Chile, and Alberto Fujimori of Peru, who currently makes his home in Japan, have avoided extradition, but the
legal fight to get them into court continues.
Even Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico’s president from
1994-2000, was accused last week of “crimes against humanity” for atrocities in Chiapas in 1997. His accuser:
the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center of Human Rights, a Catholic humanitarian group.
It’s starting to look like Luis Echeverria
may have his turn soon. Echeverria, 82, was Mexico’s president from 1970-1976, during much of Mexico’s “dirty
war.” He was Interior Secretary from 1964 to 1970.
Echeverria’s enemies made visible progress
last week when a rights organization called the Freedom of Information Group won a six-month court battle to obtain case files
that, we are told, link him to the June 10, 1971, “Corpus Christi Massacre.”
The number of students who died in the massacre
was “eleven” or “dozens,” depending on who you choose to believe — Juan Velazquez, one of Echeverria’s
team of defense lawyers, or Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo.
The Freedom of Information Group won access to the
files under the transparency law passed in 2003, and group spokesman Perla Gomez promised to provide copies to the news media
on February 14.
The Freedom of Information Group worked long and
hard to pry that one open, but it still has a way to go. The current effort is quite apart from efforts to link Echeverria
to the Tlaltelolco killings in 1968, when he was Interior Secretary.
All but 121 of the 691 pages in the files are at
least partially blacked out, but the text was the same as that Special Prosecutor Carrillo used to accuse Echeverria. We are
advised these parts were blacked out “for security reasons,” though it’s hard to imagine whose security
might be at risk after 34 years unless it’s that of the former president.
Gomez says her group wants access to all of the files,
which she estimates at about 9,000 pages.
Those impatient to put the events of the 1960s and
70s behind them will see this partial victory as a small step toward justice, but it’s likely to make the former president
Carrillo has been working for more than two years
to identify Echeverria’s role in Mexico’s “dirty war,” and to get court permission to issue an arrest
warrant against him. The charge he wants to lay is genocide, because there is no statute of limitations on that crime.
The prosecutor gets little cooperation from the former
president, who refuses to answer questions.
The discomfort of the growing list of former Latin
American presidents is a sign that, slow though it may be, brave individuals throughout the region are setting legal precedents
and wearing down the legal immunity of elected officials past and present.
As well, the developments of recent years provide
a series of cautionary tales for incumbent Latin American presidents.
Kenneth Emmond, an economist, market consultant and
journalist who has lived in Mexico since 1995, is also a columnist with MexiData.info.
He can be reached via e-mail at Kemmond00@yahoo.com.