ATOYAC de ALVAREZ, Mexico - While Mexico debates charges against ex-President Luis Echeverria for the deaths of demonstrators 33 years ago, human rights advocates and others say police are still waging a dirty war in Guerrero state, with little or no government effort to stop it.
Federal prosecutors in Guerrero deny there's any pattern to the police abuses, blaming them on corrupt and unethical police officers. They say they're recruiting more honest men to fill the state's police ranks.
But human rights officials cite a variety of cases to back their claim that abuses systematically aren't prosecuted. Amnesty International thinks there's a political component to the cases.
"Amnesty International is seriously concerned about the continuing harassment of leaders of peasant organizations," the agency wrote in its 2003 annual report, citing events in Guerrero.
Among the cases that advocates cite:
- At least 20 judicial police commanders, chiefs and officers remain at large, even though they've been charged with homicide, rape, abduction and torture, according to Guerrero's Human Rights Commission.
- At least 11 people have disappeared, some after they were arrested, in the last two years, the commission says. From 1991 to 2001, the commission said it requested state and federal officials to investigate 630 cases of suspected police abuse, but that only 70 of those cases have been resolved.
- At least 60 people are in jail, rights groups say, because of their politics. The jailed people include farmers, government opponents and suspected rebels.
Human rights advocates also note that top officials accused of being involved in the disappearances continue to hold state jobs, including the state's assistant attorney general, Antonio Nogueda Carvajal.
Nogueda was a police commander in neighboring Morelos state when he was accused in 1988 in the disappearance of Jose Ramon Garcia, a well-known leftist leader who vanished during allegations that the presidential election that put Carlos Salinas de Gortari in office was rigged.
Nogueda has repeatedly asserted his innocence and says the charges were dropped. Morelos state officials, contacted by Knight Ridder, said they could find no paperwork on the case.
But Daniel Estrella, the special prosecutor who handled the case, said the warrant against Nogueda is still valid and that three others named with Nogueda are serving time for the case. In June, Guerrero opposition parties, state legislators and rights organizations asked the federal and state government to reopen the investigation.
Estrella blames the lack of prosecution on Nogueda's membership in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held the Mexican presidency for 71 years before the 2000 election of National Action Party candidate Vicente Fox and still holds the Guerrero statehouse.
"It's been 12 years," Estrella said. "In Mexico, old political players protect each other. Nogueda is old PRI. There're a lot of Noguedas."
Nogueda told reporters in June that he had been cleared. "I was the subject of that investigation but had nothing to do with Garcia's disappearance," he said.
Guerrero has long been a center of political violence in Mexico. It's the home state of legendary guerrilla leader Luciano Cabanas, whose Guerrilla Army of the Poor terrorized government supporters in the 1970s and who was killed in a shootout with the Mexican army near this town in 1974. Many people here still revere him.
Of the 535 cases of disappeared people from the 1960s and 1970s chronicled by the Mexican Human Rights Commission, two-thirds took place in Guerrero, many in the mountains near here, according to Ignacio Carrillo, the special prosecutor Fox appointed as head of the Office for Political and Social Movements of the Past, charged with investigating the so-called dirty war of three decades ago.
Carrillo's investigation has created a storm in Mexico, most recently when he asked a judge to order Echeverria's arrest on genocide charges stemming from the June 10, 1971, deaths of dozens of demonstrators who were fired upon in downtown Mexico City by a paramilitary group known as the Falcons. The demonstrators were commemorating another famous political confrontation, the 1968 shooting at Tlatelolco plaza in Mexico City, which left dozens dead. Human rights activists also blame Echeverria, who was Mexico's interior minister at the time, for Tlatelolco.
Federal Judge Cesar Flores rejected Carrillo's request for Echeverria's arrest, saying Mexico's 30-year statute of limitations had expired in the case. Carrillo is appealing the ruling.
But activists say it's unnecessary to go back 30 years to find cases of disappearances to prosecute.
Fearful people in Atoyac de Alvarez, where Carrillo established an office to look into old allegations, rail about brutal police, military and government officials who terrorize this Pacific Coast state, best known for its resort city of Acapulco.
"There're still kidnappings and torture and no one is ever punished," said Tita Radilla, the vice president of the Association for Families of Disappeared Victims. "We denounce it, file legal complaints, but authorities here just move perpetrators to other towns."
Amnesty International agreed. "Guerrero has seen more disappearances at the hands of state authorities than any other state in Mexico in the last 30 years until now," the group said in its 2003 report. It called on the state to "criminalize `forced disappearances' ... to bring state legislation into line with international human rights standards."
Even the U.S. State Department's human rights report in February reserved special mention for Guerrero. "State law enforcement officials were accused of committing unlawful killings ... vigilante killings ... reports of disappearances. The police sometimes torture people to get information ... resulting in death ... and the courts continue to admit evidence extracted from torture," it said.
The office of Guerrero Gov. Rene Juarez declined detailed comment this week on the subject, saying it's preparing a statement - the same answer it has given for six months in response to Knight Ridder inquiries.
Ironically, the governor's office refers reporters to assistant attorney general Nogueda's office for comment.
Local activists say the current violence does have a tie-in to the violence of the 1960s and 1970s - the people who are accused of perpetrating political crimes then were often the mentors for those accused now.
"The people from the dirty war are still around," said Radilla, of the Association for Families of Disappeared Victims.
They cite the case of Victor Castro, who was once head of Guerrero's anti-kidnapping unit, but is now wanted in at least nine cases of kidnapping, theft, torture and illegal arrest. Until recently, witnesses say, he could often be seen driving around Acapulco in a red Jeep.
Ulises Granados, 30, a law student and bus driver, said he was kidnapped by Castro on Aug. 23, 1997, as he was driving along his route.
"I'll never forget him. Castro is tall, dark, with a scar on his cheek," said Granados. "He put a plastic bag over my head, tied my arms and feet and dunked my head in water."
Granados said he was tortured for three days. At first he was accused of running over a boy and then of being a kidnapper. Granados said he survived because of his wife's quick intervention.
Granados' arrest was "illegal and arbitrary," the state's rights commission said, calling for Castro's dismissal. Castro was dismissed, but there was no effort to arrest him.
Castro created a stir Jan. 4 at the funeral of his mentor, Isidro Galeana, the former commander of Guerrero's judicial police. Carrillo had charged Galeana last year in connection with the 1974 disappearance of a suspected guerrilla leader, Jacob Najera of Chilpancingo.
Galeana was the first person for whom an arrest warrant was issued under charges laid by Carrillo, but the Nov. 25 warrant was never executed. Galeana died of natural causes Jan. 2.
Castro was among the mourners who showed up for Galeana's burial at the Jardines del Tiempo cemetery in Acapulco, according to newspaper reports and witnesses.
"Long live my commander!" he reportedly shouted.
Dozens of police officers who were also present made no effort to arrest him, in spite of the warrants against him. Law enforcement officials believe he's now left the state.
Human rights advocates note with irony that Nogueda, who was once Castro's boss, is also involved in cases that touch on the special prosecutor's investigations.
Nogueda, for example, is prosecuting the case involving the murder of Horacio Zacarias Barrientos, a key witness in the Galeana prosecution.
The day after the arrest warrant was issued for Galeana, Barrientos, 55, was found riddled with bullets, arms ripped out, near his coffee farm above Atoyac.
On Jan. 7, Nogueda charged five peasants, four of them related to Barrientos, with his murder. Nogueda accused Barrientos' 81-year-old uncle, Isaias Martinez, of plotting the murder because Barrientos had turned Martinez's son over to police in the 1970s - a claim Martinez denied in cellblock interviews.
"I loved Zacarias and he was out of the army long before 1978 when my son disappeared," said Martinez, who is nearly deaf.
Knight Ridder correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report.
© 2004 Knight-Ridder