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Echeverria Avows Innocence in 1968 Deaths

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

With so much attention being paid this past week to the choice of the next president of Mexico, it was possible to overlook what happened to a past president of Mexico. Luis Echeverria is under house arrest. He's in his 80s and he stands accused of genocide. The charges stem from the killings of Mexican student protestors in 1968 when he was Interior Minister. Later, as president of Mexico, Mr. Echeverria presided over the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s against opponents of what was still a one-party regime in those days. He denies any guilt and calls it a distortion of what happened in 1968 to call that genocide.

Kate Doyle is director of the Mexico Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and she joins us now from New York City. Earlier this year the Security Archive, which is an independent group, published a draft report by a panel of Mexican historians on the Dirty War. Kate Doyle, welcome to the program.

Ms. KATE DOYLE (Director, Mexico Documentation Project): Thank you, Bob.

SIEGEL: And first, what did then-Interior Minister Echeverria do in 1968, or what's he accused of doing, to warrant the accusation of genocide?

Ms. DOYLE: Former President Echeverria was the Interior Minister at a time when there were student protests over the nature or the failure of democracy in Mexico. And in 1968 there was a gathering in downtown Mexico City of hundreds of student protestors calling for a more democratic government, and in the course of that demonstration masked gunmen shot on the demonstrators and many dozens of students and bystanders were killed. And it is alleged in the charges by the special prosecutor that President Echeverria was responsible for planning and ordering what is now called the Massacre at Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City in 1968.

SIEGEL: You mean not just posting snipers on rooftops, but actually giving them orders to shoot at student protestors. That's the accusation.

Ms. DOYLE: Yes, President Echeverria was part of an inter-agency group and there are quite a number of declassified documents both from United States archives and from the Mexican archives that indicate that Echeverria and this group helped to plan the government's response to the student protests during that year.

SIEGEL: Now, do the Mexicans use genocide in the same way that we do? To refer to what happened in the Holocaust or Rwanda, or is this closer to a mass murder charge?

Ms. DOYLE: This is an attempt by President Fox's special prosecutor to successfully prosecute former government officials on human rights crimes that took place more than 30 years ago. One of the problems that the special prosecutor faced in doing his work was that human rights crimes that took place 30 years or more appeared to be covered by the statute of limitations and therefore not open to prosecutions today. And by calling what happened in Tlatelolco in 1968 genocide against what he terms a national group of politically like-minded students, the special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto hoped to help those cases foster and thrive in the courts.

SIEGEL: And you're saying so far it has worked? In this case, the use of genocide as the offense has gotten past the statute of limitations problems?

Ms. DOYLE: So far it has not worked, unfortunately. This victory should be seen as a pyrrhic victory, really. The special prosecutor started not with the case of the 1968 massacre, but started a couple of years ago with another case of government murders of student protestors that took place in 1971. That case went all the way to the Supreme Court. President Echeverria was also named in that case and the Supreme Court threw the genocide charges out, saying that they did not describe what had happened. It is very unlikely that this case is going to survive an appeal to a higher court.

SIEGEL: Now, among the protestations of innocence from former President Echeverria is his claim that whatever happened in 1968 in October was not genocide. I understand how the term has served the special prosecutor in this case but by conventional standards, doesn't he have a point? This isn't Rwanda that took place in October, 1968.

Ms. DOYLE: Absolutely. And I think for some human rights lawyers and others involved in places like Rwanda or Darfur, this was a very flawed legal strategy.

SIEGEL: Well, Kate Doyle, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Ms. DOYLE: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Kate Doyle, speaking to us from New York City. She is director of the Mexico Documentation Project of the National Security Archive. That's an independent group that's based at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.