Human Rights in Mexico
Interiew: Mexican Human-Rights
Activist Gen. José Gallardo
by Rick Mercier
Mexican Gen. José Gallardo once
seemed an unlikely candidate for human-rights activist. One of
the youngest officers to earn the rank of brigadier general in
the Mexican army, Gallardo was on the fast track to the highest
echelons of power.
But the general's career took a sharp
left-turn when he enrolled at Mexico City's National Autonomous
University, where he pursued a course of study in political science.
During his time at the university, Gallardo concluded the armed
forces needed an independent ombudsman to investigate charges
of human-rights abuses by military personnel.
Shortly after publishing a magazine article
in which he laid out this proposal, Gallardo found himself facing
charges of theft and destruction of documents. A military court
convicted him in December 1993, but his real crime, according
to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International,
was to shine a light on the military's unsavory human-rights record.
In response to intense international pressure,
Mexican President Vicente Fox freed Gallardo earlier this year
after Gallardo had spent nine years in jail. Fox has received
praise for his release of a few high-profile political prisoners-including
Gallardo-and his authorization of an official inquiry into past
But there remain serious human-rights
problems in Mexico. Last fall, one of the country's most prominent
human-rights lawyer, 38-year-old Digna Ochoa, was shot dead. Amnesty
International and other groups have raised questions about the
investigation into her murder, which is still unsolved. In May,
26 peasants were gunned down in Oaxaca state. And a long-simmering,
bloody conflict threatens to boil over once again in Chiapas state,
where the Zapatista rebels rose up in 1994 to demand indigenous
rights and autonomy.
During a recent visit to the Washington,
D.C., area, Gallardo discussed human-rights conditions in Mexico
and the challenges his nation faces as it continues along the
path of full democratization.
WPR: In the United States, we've been
reading about how President Fox has been trying to improve the
human-rights situation in Mexico. Do you think he's taking effective
I think what Fox is trying to do is promote an image for external
consumption, so that people think human rights are being respected
in Mexico. Those cases that the Mexican government tends to focus
on are those that have received some sort of attention in other
countries. But in the interior, in the countryside, there are
very serious violations of human rights. One of the examples that
I can mention is the Agua Fria massacre in Oaxaca-also the assassination
of Digna Ochoa, which has not been solved.
There is active participation of army
officers in the judicial process, and there is participation of
army officers in narcotrafficking. In addition, there is this
strong, pervasive presence of the military in indigenous communities
that has forced displacement of some of these indigenous communities
and created a certain rupture between the communities and their
land and cultures.
This is just some of what I can discuss
in general terms. But, to be brief, I don't think President Fox
has done much to improve human-rights conditions in Mexico. There
has been no effort to solve any of the human-rights violations
that have occurred in Mexico in the past. In Mexico there are
more than 500 political prisoners. And there are many, many political
disappearances, or disappearances of people that have not been
resolved-even disappearances of military personnel.
There's been a move in Mexico to uncover
the truth about the 1968 massacre in Mexico City and also the
truth about the "dirty war" of the 1970s, during which
hundreds of people disappeared. Do you think the government will
get to the bottom of those crimes and bring to justice those who
are responsible for them?
I think they're going to try to manage
the situation, because the attorney general, who is in charge
of investigating these crimes, these human-rights abuses, is a
former military officer, a general by the name of Rafael Macedo
de la Concha. When this general was the military's top prosecutor,
the army engaged in many human-rights violations that were never
This was during what period? __The administration
of Ernesto Zedillo [1994-2000]. So the way we are interpreting
the naming of this general to investigate these human-rights abuses
is that he will guarantee and protect the impunity of military
officers and politicians.
In March 2000, there was the Zapatista
caravan to Mexico City and the passage of an indigenous-rights
law. But then that law was gutted so that it was no longer satisfactory
to indigenous people. And so now there's an impasse. What do you
think will happen in Chiapas?
What we're seeing in Chiapas right now
is that there is a very volatile situation that might explode
because of the role and the participation of military personnel
in human-rights violations-especially in a place called Montes
They believe that site holds lots of gas
Yes. Curiously, where the Zapatista National
Liberation Army has its headquarters, or where most of the people
who support the Zapatista Army are located, is a region that is
very rich in oil and mineral reserves. It's also a region that
is extremely rich in forest resources.
What do you think remains to be done to
complete Mexico's transition to democracy?
What is needed is to have President Fox
attack the structures within the state that perpetrate human-rights
abuses with impunity. But the first thing that needs to be done
in that regard is the president needs to resolve all the serious
cases of human-rights abuses and corruption and impunity in the
country. There must be campaign-finance reform in Mexico as well.
All those who are guilty of violating
human rights in Mexico-all those people must be tried. Because
once we are able to reach that truth, we will be able to build
something from there, to build toward a better tomorrow so that
we can continue to seek justice. The fact is that truth sometimes
is something difficult to handle-sometimes the truth is painful.
But truth is also a sort of medicine for the soul, something that
will help the country to heal itself. If we are not able to accomplish
that, it will be very difficult for us to make real advances in