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Probe ties ex president to 68 massacre { October 3 2003 }

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Probe Ties Ex-President to '68 Massacre in Mexico

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 3, 2003; Page A19

MEXICO CITY, Oct. 2 -- A special prosecutor is investigating newly revealed information about the role of former president Luis Echeverria in the 1968 massacre of student demonstrators by government troops, one of the most scarring moments in modern Mexican history.

"Undoubtedly he knew what was happening," Maria de Los Angeles Magdaleno, an investigator in the special prosecutor's office, said of Echeverria. "It was an operation of the state."

Magdaleno said in an interview today that government forces were in an apartment of Echeverria's sister-in-law, Rebeca Zuno de Lima, on Oct. 2, 1968, the day anti-government protesters were attacked at the Tlatelolco Plaza.

The special prosecutor's office was created by President Vicente Fox, who has said no official is "untouchable." The office has uncovered documents showing that at least 360 government snipers trained their weapons on thousands of protesters that day. An account of the information was first reported Wednesday by the Associated Press.

At the time of the massacre, Echeverria was the interior minister and was in charge of domestic security. He later served as president from 1970 to 1976.

Magdaleno said documents show that Echeverria was receiving updates from the armed forces "every five minutes" and then passing that information onto then-President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who died in 1979.

"From Echeverria's sister-in-law's apartment, they were informing the president's security guard that they were firing," Magdaleno said. "The whole world pointed to Echeverria as responsible, but the great merit of the archive is to show it with documents."

There has never been an official reckoning of who was responsible for the killings or even how many died. Parents reported that their sons and daughters disappeared and have long maintained that their bodies were clandestinely buried as the government sought to cover up the atrocity. Estimates of the number of those killed range from a few dozen to hundreds, and activists charge that those killed or disappeared were cremated or placed in mass graves.

Magdaleno said her team's research indicates that the killings occurred not because of a direct order to fire on the students, but because of the chaos caused by the presence of the large numbers of separate armed groups, including the army, police, presidential security forces and snipers.

"It was an operation that went out of control," she said. She said she had no doubt that Echeverria, who has denied any wrongdoing, "knew everything" that was going on.

Americo Melendez, another official in the special prosecutor's office, said the criminal investigation into Echeverria's actions involves charges of genocide and deprivation of people's liberty. The results of the probe, officials said, could lead to unprecedented criminal charges against a former president and could be announced as early as January.

The new focus on Echeverria, who is rarely seen in public, comes as thousands marched today on the 35th anniversary of the massacre, an event as traumatizing for many here as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was in the United States. The march turned violent as participants looted stores and smashed cars and windows. Some marchers attempted to break down a fence around the Interior Ministry building where Echeverria worked at the time of the massacre.

A spokesman for Echeverria said today that he had no comment on the new disclosures.

Last year, the special prosecutor called Echeverria, 81, for questioning, but he declined to respond to accusations against him.

The massacre occurred days before Mexico hosted the 1968 Summer Olympics. Analysts have said that concern about the protesters and the image they would project led the government to call for the dangerous positioning of armed forces near the students.

The firing on unarmed students, as well as government denials of any culpability and assertions that students fired first, became a watershed event in Mexico. Scholars and historians cite the massacre in the declining support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which controlled the presidency from 1929 until Fox's election in 2000.

David Vega was 22 years old and was speaking at the microphone in the plaza when the gunfire started. Today, Vega joined thousands at the site commemorating the tragedy. He said he was encouraged by the "new information which further implicates Echeverria."

"When we were students we hoped we could make a difference," Vega said. "Now that I'm 57 years old, I still hope that things can change and that Echeverria will be brought to justice."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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