Human Rights and the Dirty War
by Kate Doyle
National Security Archive, May
Twenty-five years ago, during the worst
years of Mexico's dirty war, a new consciousness began to dawn
in the United States about human rights.
The U.S. government was in turmoil. The
scandals leading to impeachment proceedings and the resignation
of Richard M. Nixon, the fall of Saigon, and revelations about
CIA operations in countries such as Cuba, Chile and the Congo
prompted the U.S. Congress to seek ways to incorporate human rights
into the conduct of American foreign policy.
Beginning in 1973 and through the 1970s,
lawmakers used foreign aid bills to push the government to consider
human rights in countries receiving U.S. security or economic
assistance. By 1977, these efforts resulted in the first formal
"Human Rights Report" published by the State Department,
and the creation of a new office of human rights and humanitarian
The reports did not have much effect in
Mexico. According to Lawrence Sternfield, who as chief of the
CIA station in Mexico in 1977 was in the best position to know,
"There was absolutely no mention of human rights while I
was there. Not one word was spoken about it with my counterparts.
It wasn't something that we broached or they broached. The relationship
we had with the DFS [the Dirección Federal de Seguridad,
Mexico's domestic intelligence service] was about pure intelligence
"After all," Sternfield continued
during a phone interview, "this was the height of the Cold
War, and our efforts were focused against the Soviet target. Not
that we weren't aware that the Mexicans were doing bad things
when they picked up people. But we didn't raise that with them."
Today in Mexico, researchers are digging
through newly-released archives of the dirty war, and finding
fresh evidence that government agents abducted, tortured and murdered
hundreds of Mexicans during the sexenios of Luis Echeverría
and José López Portillo. Declassified U.S. records
are also providing new details about the scope of the crisis.
But despite emerging revelations about
Mexico's official involvement in brutal human rights crimes, declassified
and public documents show that in the 1970s U.S. citizens knew
little about what was unfolding just south of their border.
A Policy is Born
American interest in human rights policy
emerged after the Second World War, when that conflict's terrible
toll prompted an international call for the promotion of the rights
and liberties of all citizens.
Cold War security interests relegated
human rights to a unenforceable symbol during the 1950s and 60s,
but the foreign policy scandals of the Nixon and Ford administrations
compelled Congress to act. Reports of CIA assassination programs
in Vietnam, the use of torture by agents trained by U.S. police
advisors in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and the American
role in the overthrow of Chile's President Allende fed a growing
sense of outrage about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the
In the face of mounting evidence of dirty
tricks and brutal policies, lawmakers rebelled against their President.
Through a series of increasingly tough measures, Congress ordered
the White House and the Department of State to slow or slash aid
to countries responsible for human rights abuses. In 1976, Congress
passed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act requiring the
Secretary of State to publish an annual human rights report.
As Congress and the executive branch wrestled
over human rights in the United States, Mexico was experiencing
a period of unprecedented violence. According to the report on
the "disappeared" released in late 2001 by the National
Commission on Human Rights, abductions of Mexicans by government
agents were at an all-time high, with over 350 documented cases
between 1974-1978. (Note 1) Amnesty International, the only international
human rights group closely following developments in Mexico at
the time, reported extensively on allegations of torture, including
the use by Mexican police forces of "systematic beatings,
near drowning and electric shocks." (Note 2)
1974 was the first year that the U.S.
embassy in Mexico was required by Washington to report on the
human rights situation. Congress had inserted Section 32 to the
Foreign Assistance Act in 1973, calling on President Nixon to
deny U.S. economic and security assistance to nations that interned
or imprisoned citizens for political purposes. On April 19, U.S.
Ambassador to Mexico Joseph John Jova sent a reply to a query
from the State Department that minimized the government's involvement
in violations, while providing thinly-veiled justification for
illegal tactics used by the government in its crackdown on armed
Jova's cable equivocated on the question
of political prisoners in Mexico, claiming that the government
did not detain citizens for political reasons, "except when
faced with active, armed opposition that potentially threatens
the security of the state." Expression of political beliefs
that were contrary to Mexican government positions were, wrote
Jova, "usually tolerated within limitsor at worse, discouraged
through mild pressures."
The ambassador continued: "Where
GOM [Government of Mexico] remains uncompromising (and indeed
may have stiffened its attitude in recent months) is in respect
to those persons who have taken up arms against the state. The
GOM argues (and, we think, with some justification,) that such
persons, whatever their professed motivation, have committed felonies
(murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, etc.) and are therefore sought,
apprehended and punished not for their beliefs but for their concrete
"It is in dealing with the perpetrators
of such acts that GOM appears frequently to overstep legally prescribed
procedures. There are recurrent reports of 'suspects' whose only
connection with anti-governmental activity may be blood relationship
with wanted guerrillas; of civilians detained extra-constitutionally
by military authorities; and of prisoners tortured in detention.
Lately, there have been indications also that GOM has murdered
some prisoners after extracting all information they have to give
"Important point in Embassy's opinion,
however," wrote the ambassador, "is that GOM in these
instances appears to be responding - however heavy-handedly -
to legitimate and serious provocation by armed opponents who seek
its overthrow and who in last several years have come to constitute
a genuine threat to public order in several parts of the country."
Not only was the Mexican crackdown understandable,
the United States had no intention of pressing Echeverría
about it. At the request of the State Department, the First Secretary
of the U.S. embassy T. Frank Crigler met later that year with
a representative of the Foreign Relations Secretariate (Secretaría
de Relaciones Exteriores - SRE) to discuss "U.S. interests
in the current human rights situation."
When SRE official Jorge Palacios Treviño
asked if the U.S. sought a statement from the government about
human rights in Mexico, Crigler hastened to reassure him "that
there was no intention on our part whatever to meddle in Mexico's
internal affairs, but that we simply wished to cooperate and consult
with the Mexican government on means by which other nations might
be encouraged to pay attention to human rights values."
That, of course, was the crux of the matter.
Declassified U.S. documents from 1968-78 show clearly that the
United States knew the Mexican government was committing grave
human rights violations - they also show that the U.S. was uninterested
in publicizing that fact, either to the Mexican government or
to the U.S. Congress.
But popular pressure on the U.S. government
grew between Nixon's resignation in 1974 and the election of Jimmy
Carter in November 1976.
In February 1976, Henry Kissinger's State
Department cabled all overseas posts alerting them to congressional
interest in human rights and requesting a report that could be
used by the administration in coming deliberations about U.S.
aid programs. Calling the promotion of human rights "a principal
goal of U.S. foreign policy," the cable reminded embassies
of the "considerable public and media attention to human
rights questions in U.S. foreign affairs."
Political officer John Hamilton drafted
a straightforward reply on March 24, 1976, describing a "pattern
of human rights violations" in several areas, including torture
- characterized as a common tactic during police interrogations
- and arbitrary arrest and detention. Hamilton warned that Mexico
took an especially hard-line against people it suspected of involvement
in armed opposition: "We believe the Government has little
qualms in acting to destroy opponents who use terrorism as a tactic."
And what did the unclassified report that
resulted from Hamilton's review look like? It is a two-page document,
sanitized to the point of meaninglessness. There is one reference
to the Echeverría administration's response to armed groups:
"The Mexican Government refuses to accede to terrorist demands
and strong enforcement action appears to have thinned terrorist
ranks." The word "torture" does not appear.
Not a key issue
The first country team to occupy the U.S.
embassy after the election of Jimmy Carter as president also wrote
blunt and honest cables to Washington about Mexico's human rights
problems, but strongly cautioned against making their findings
"While Embassy cannot prove it, it
is believed that Mexican security officials have dealt with terrorists
in the past by murdering them instead of bringing them to trial,"
wrote the political section in September 1977. The cable warned,
however, that "Public release would be harmful to the future
course of U.S.-Mexican relations. While we should monitor human
rights performance in Mexico, especially through contacts with
influential groups, the Embassy should not enter into actual investigation
of human rights violations. Such an investigative effort would
be counterproductive, interpreted as intervention in the internal
affairs of Mexico, and therefore politically impossible."
Concerns about damaging relations with
Mexico were combined with the relative low priority of human rights
- even during the Carter administration - in comparison to other,
more pressing matters.
Ambassador Patrick J. Lucey arrived at
the embassy in 1977. Lucey was a political appointee, and a strong
advocate of Carter's foreign policies, including his stance on
human rights. Reached by telephone and e-mail at his home in Wisconsin,
the ambassador did not remember human rights being a central issue
during his tenure. He recalled, "[We] did not think of the
López Portillo regime as the dark days. Instead, we looked
back to 1968 when all of the students were killed just before
the Mexico City Olympics. Those were the really dark days and
when I was there we were still arguing with the Mexican government
about just how many were killed."
According to Lucey, the issues that occupied
him and his staff the most were trade, migration, oil and drugs.
Their policy agenda was not invented in the embassy - it was based
on signals coming out of Washington.
In late 1978, the White House conducted
a sweeping review of U.S.-Mexican relations at the request of
President Carter. One annex from the classified Presidential Review
Memorandum dealt exclusively with human rights. In it, the National
Security Council acknowledged grave abuses by the Mexican forces,
naming the paramilitary group "White Brigade" as responsible
for many of the worst abuses.
"In its drive to eradicate terrorists
the White Brigade and other security force elements have sometimes
ignored the human rights of the suspects and Mexican judicial
procedures security forces have tortured and executed suspects
and are responsible for the disappearances of as many as 200-300
persons over the last decade."
But in discussing possible U.S. policy
approaches, the White House agreed with its embassy in Mexico
- that to try and speak forcefully to the Mexican government about
abuses would likely backfire. "It would be ill-advised and
counter-productive for us to take Mexico to task publicly for
its domestic violations of human rights. We will continue to use
The earliest human rights reports, as
a result, were aimed less at truly informing the American people
about the situation in Mexico than they were to present an acceptable
public face to the problem. U.S. citizens would not comprehend
the scope of Mexico's use of repressive tactics for many years
In the United States, it took a generation
for human rights to truly enter the culture of foreign policy
practice. Today, the State Department's annual report is one of
the most comprehensive and detailed accounts of human rights in
Mexico produced by any institution.
Embracing human rights also cost a generation
in Mexico. Only now, three decades later, is Mexico beginning
to come to grips with the fact that the government was responsible
for torturing and murdering its own people. It remains to be seen
whether the country is ready to act on that realization.