Pubdate: Tue, 09 Jul 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Authors: Tim Weiner and Ginger Thompson


MEXICO CITY, July 8 - As newly declassified archives begin to illuminate 
what happened to hundreds of leftists who disappeared during a "dirty war" 
waged by the government in the 1970's, a harsh spotlight is turning on 
Mexico's army.

President Vicente Fox's election two years ago ended seven decades of 
authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. But the army, 
which built the party, remains as secretive a power as any in Mexico. 
Opening it to greater oversight is one of the greatest challenges facing 
Mr. Fox's government, and the institution has been slow to change.

Without a foreign foe, its 183,000 uniformed men fight the enemy within: 
big criminal cartels and small bands of rural guerrillas. Its role in the 
campaign against drug traffickers, who once corrupted generals with bribes, 
has been a smashing success of late.

But two decades after the "dirty war" ended, its battles against its real 
and imagined enemies - in particular, supposed guerrilla sympathizers among 
the rural poor - have continually been marked by abuses including rape, 
torture and killing.

Those crimes, judged by secret military trials, often go unpunished. 
President Fox's promises to make the military more accountable to civilian 
powers remain unfulfilled.

That raises a question: if Mexico's army polices the country, who polices 
the army? "In this country," said Luis Garfias Magana, a retired general, 
"the army is an institution unknown by almost everyone - unknown by 
society, unknown within the government and sometimes within the military 

The newly opened files will make it harder for the army to hide its 
misdeeds, said a dissident senior officer, Brig. Gen. Jose Francisco 
Gallardo, who was freed in February, having been jailed eight years ago 
after criticizing the military's abuses of power.

The military must answer for "crimes against humanity," he said, and "open 
up to public scrutiny to prevent it from continuing to violate human rights."

The defense secretary, Gen. Ricardo Clemente Vega, has slowly begun to 
respond but has struggled to shield the institution from public inquiry. 
The army still answers only to the president, and only in private.

"This army did what it was told to do by the state" during the dirty war, 
said General Vega, who calls himself a man of "silence, not stridency."

But Mexico's transition to democracy means that the military's power may 
not continue unquestioned forever, and there are signs that the army has 
begun working from within to change its image.

Sergio Aguayo, a leading human rights investigator, points to the freeing 
of political prisoners like General Gallardo, military support for Mexico's 
decision to join the International Criminal Court and the public release 
last month of some 160,000 secret government documents.

"General Vega is a very smart man, and he knows that he has to make 
changes," Mr. Aguayo said of the defense secretary. "But he has also been 
smart enough to control the speed of the change."

It is a tough institution to tamper with. The army's power reaches back to 
the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. Military leaders ruled for the next 
two decades and created the Institutional Revolutionary Party in 1929. For 
the next seven decades the military was its silent servant.

"The military had an unwritten agreement with the government: give us 
complete autonomy, and we will leave you alone," said Raul Benitez, a 
leading national security scholar at the National Autonomous University of 
Mexico. "This system is changing, but slowly."

Unlike many Latin American armies, Mexico's never mounted a coup. But like 
so many others, it became a national police force.

Today military men hold the attorney general's office and key law 
enforcement posts throughout the country, commanding roughly half of 
Mexico's police. Tens of thousands of soldiers perform antidrug work or 
patrol poor rural southern states like Guerrero and Chiapas. Up in the 
mountains they are the law.

"Why do we have an army?" said Alvaro Vallarta Cecena, a retired general 
who heads the congressional armed services committee. "To invade the United 
States? To invade Guatemala? No, we need it inside Mexico, to solve 
internal problems."

The army posed a delicate internal problem for Mr. Fox when he took office 
in December 2000, ending 71 years in power for the Institutional 
Revolutionary Party.

For starters, an army general, appointed drug czar, was found to be on a 
cocaine kingpin's payroll in 1997. Five more generals were subsequently 
jailed for drug corruption. The cases called the military's role in the 
drug war into question.

Then there was Chiapas. The military turned much of the state into an armed 
camp after a band of rebels seized several towns in 1994. Human rights 
groups accused the army of backing paramilitary groups that killed hundreds 
of people. One such attack in 1997 killed 45 unarmed peasants in the 
village of Acteal.

In Guerrero, in 1998, soldiers ambushed dozens of sleeping men and women, 
leaving 11 dead in the hamlet of El Charco. Military officials said the 
dead were members of an armed rebel group. Witnesses said many had been 
killed in cold blood.

Mr. Fox, acutely sensitive to Mexico's image in the eyes of foreign 
investors, needed an army that was arresting drug traffickers, not taking 
payoffs from them, and freeing political prisoners, not taking them. His 
army, in short, needed a better public image, to be scrubbed of corruption 
and to have its rogue elements reined in.

The morning after he was inaugurated, President Fox invited military 
leaders to breakfast. He announced plans to "humanize" the army's public 
face. "We're not going to let a few bad apples spoil the image of the 
entire armed forces," he told them.

The army's antidrug duties changed. A small group of soldiers underwent 
stringent background checks and served as shock troops for civilian drug 
prosecutors. The new system worked beyond expectations: leading figures 
from every major drug cartel in Mexico have been arrested in the last year.

Under international pressure the army agreed that three political prisoners 
it had taken could be freed: General Gallardo and two peasants from 
Guerrero who had demanded an end to rampant illegal logging.

But the army strongly resisted civilian oversight by men like Adolfo 
Aguilar Zinser, who joined Mr. Fox's government as the national security 
adviser, supposedly overseeing all security agencies. After a year, his 
post was abolished, an important setback for efforts to establish civilian 
control over security issues. Mr. Aguilar Zinser is now Mexico's ambassador 
to the United Nations.

"The military is always extremely jealous, systematically jealous, about 
sharing information with anyone who is not the president," said a senior 
official involved in the struggle over the national security post.

"The military chooses the terms of their oversight," the official said. 
"They choose when and where and with whom they want to share information. 
They do not allow outside forces to push changes on them."

Under Mr. Fox the massacres have stopped. Still, there are signs that the 
military continues to prey on the people it is ordered to protect.

In recent months, soldiers have been accused of ransacking villages in 
Guerrero. In one case a human rights group has charged soldiers with 
beating and raping a 17-year-old Indian woman, Valentina Rosendo, in a 
village called Barranca Bejuco.

"In Guerrero and Chiapas, the military doesn't have a good image, and with 
reason," Mr. Benitez said. "For Fox, the human rights question and the 
image are the key. When commanders have a sensitivity to these issues their 
troops don't commit abuses. Some commanders are sensitive. Others don't see 
that things have changed.

"But the army is learning - slowly. And things are changing - slowly."
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