Former president faces genocide charges

A former Mexican president in office during some of the bloodiest social upheavals of the Cold War was facing genocide charges yesterday following an indictment by a special prosecutor investigating the deaths of at least 25 student protesters gunned down during a 1971 rally in Mexico City.

A former Mexican president in office during some of the bloodiest social upheavals of the Cold War was facing genocide charges yesterday following an indictment by a special prosecutor investigating the deaths of at least 25 student protesters gunned down during a 1971 rally in Mexico City.

If his arrest order is upheld by the courts, Luis Echeverria would be the first former president in modern Mexican history to face a criminal trial. The case is mired in controversy with many Mexicans seeing the prosecution as a political showdown between President Vicente Fox and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the longtime ruling party he supplanted when he took the presidency four years ago.

Opponents of President Fox have accused him of using the 1971 "Corpus Christi massacre" to gain political traction ahead of his 2006 re-election campaign and to take revenge against the PRI for stonewalling his agenda in the Mexican Congress.

Those pressing for accountability for past government repression, meanwhile, have accused the President and his special prosecutor, Ignacio Carrillo, of dragging their feet and serving the cause of politics ahead of the cause of justice. They say many of the other acts of official violence from the 1960s and 1970s have been dodged or ignored, despite Mr Fox's pledge on taking office to look into the darker side of the PRI's 70-year hold on executive power in Mexico.

Mr Echeverria, 82, was head of state from 1970 to 1976, when pro-government paramilitaries frequently clashed with left-wing protesters, with bloody results. The PRI, like many governing parties around the world at the time, understood that to avoid the wrath of the United States in its geopolitical, struggle with the Soviet Union it had to stifle the possibility of a political shift to the left.

Mr Echeverria is seen as a key player in the most repressive phase. He was interior minister in charge of national security in 1968, when soldiers opened fire on a demonstration in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City, killing dozens of people. The Corpus Christi demonstration three years later was held as a memorial to Tlatelolco, only to explode into violence as paramilitary gunmen opened fire.

The genocide charge was the prosecutor's only option because the 30-year statute of limitations on murder prosecutions has run out.

Through his lawyer, Mr Echeverria maintains that "absolutely no proof" links him to the Corpus Christi bloodshed and that the Falcons opened fire only after they were fired upon.

Survivors of the event have disputed that account. "It was a peaceful demonstration on a holy day," protest participant Jesus Martin del Campo, whose brother was killed, testified recently. "The government had a group of assassins called the Falcons, trained by generals, waiting for us, and they started shooting." Human rights groups have urged the special prosecutor to charge Mr Echeverria in the Tlatelolco case as well, but Mr Carrillo's office said he was focusing on the Corpus Christi event because the evidence was easier to gather. Alongside Mr Echeverria, charges are expected to be filed against a leading army general, his interior minister and his attorney general.

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