MEXICO CITY — Just days before Mexicans vote in what's expected to be a tight and ideologically divided presidential election, an arrest order was issued for former Mexican President Luis Echeverria in connection with the 1968 massacre of student protesters, court officials confirmed Friday.
Saying the case is under seal, Judge Jose Angel Mattar Oliva declined to discuss the case with McClatchy Newspapers, but a court clerk confirmed the order, which had been widely reported in Mexican newspapers. Echeverria's lawyer, Juan Velasquez, told media outlets that his client was innocent.
Former Mexican presidents generally have enjoyed immunity from prosecution; Echeverria, 84, is the first to be issued an arrest warrant. He isn't expected to serve jail time because of his advanced age. Under Mexican law, he has the right to request detention at home.
The case against Echeverria stems from his role as the powerful interior minister when Mexican troops fired on student demonstrators in Tlatelolco Square on Oct. 2, 1968, 10 days before Mexico hosted the Summer Olympics. Echeverria allegedly gave orders to post snipers on top of buildings to fire into the crowd, an allegation he's denied.
To this day, Mexicans don't know precisely how many people died or were injured in Tlatelolco, and it remains an open political wound. Some estimates say anywhere from 25 to 300 people were killed, but for decades the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI as it's known by its Spanish initials, thwarted attempts to learn the truth.
The massacre and a more generalized persecution of leftist movements in Mexico during the late 1960s and early 1970s — called the "dirty war" — have come under judicial scrutiny by the government of President Vicente Fox, who in 2000 ended seven decades of uninterrupted rule by Echeverria's PRI.
The case against Echeverria, who led Mexico from 1970 to 1976, is one of many attempts across Latin America to bring to justice to former rulers accused of state-sanctioned summary executions, tortures, disappearances and kidnappings of leftists.
Chileans have tried since 2000 to bring former dictator Augusto Pinochet to justice for the bloody 1973 U.S.-backed coup that was followed by 17 years of dictatorship. Similar efforts are under way in Uruguay, Peru, Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala.
Although Mexico has started looking into its dirty war, critics have called Fox's efforts at prosecuting former politicians half-hearted.
"It seems to be extremely late. I have been saying for 31 years he (Echeverria) should be detained and punished for what happened during his sexenio" (six-year term), said Rosario Ibarra, whose son Jesus, a medical student, disappeared in April 1975.
The news of the arrest order seemed to benefit the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which holds a slight lead in opinion polls ahead of Sunday's vote. The arrest order could remind voters of Mexico's persecution of the left. It certainly works against the discredited PRI, which appears poised to finish a distant third in the election.
Like mothers of the disappeared across Latin America, Ibarra said she bears no grudge but wants answers.
"Alive they took them and alive they will return them or they should explain what happened to them," she said of her son and others missing in Mexico's dirty war.