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Hope lost for answers in Mexico's dirty war, activists fear

MEXICO CITY—Human rights advocates say hopes of a complete investigation into Mexico's so-called dirty war have vanished now that responsibility for investigating extrajudicial kidnappings and murders dating to the 1960s has been shifted to the Mexican attorney general's office.

Files detailing the deaths and disappearances of hundreds at the hands of the military and police between the 1960s and the 1980s were moved last month to the attorney general's custody after the official closing of a special prosecutor's office. The office was set up with much fanfare by President Vicente Fox in 2002.

As authorities make battling escalating drug cartel violence a top priority—relying heavily on the Mexican army—human rights activists worry that Fox's successor, President Felipe Calderon, has all but abandoned efforts to prosecute soldiers and officials involved in past crimes.

"We still don't have a full narrative of what happened in Mexico's recent past," said Luisa Perez, an attorney with Mexico City-based human rights group Centre ProdH. "We doubt that in the sea that is the (attorney general's office), anything will get done."

A spokesman for the attorney general's office, Jose Luis Monjarrez, said open cases will be doled out to various prosecutors for continued investigation. Files on some cases deemed closed have been returned to Mexico's National Archive, where they can be reviewed by the public, but the remainder will stay in custody of Mexican authorities, he said. Those files won't be available for viewing.

Critics doubt that the attorney general's office will make pursuing open cases a priority.

"As far as we know, no progress has been made," said Tamara Taraciuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Mexico needs to find a solution and find a way to prosecute these perpetrators. It's one of the examples of impunity in Mexico."

When Fox took office after the historic 2000 election, ending seven decades of one-party national rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he vowed to investigate and prosecute past human rights abuses.

Fox released millions of once-secret documents and created a special prosecutor's office to investigate the disappearances and deaths of more than 600 farmers, indigenous protesters and political dissidents.

The office, headed by attorney Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, last fall released a stinging 800-page report that chronicled years of abuse by authorities to quash dissent, but it was generally considered a failure because it didn't bring any successful prosecutions.

Former President Luis Echeverria remains under house arrest, charged with ordering the massacre of protesting students shortly before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. His legal case is pending.

In November, as Fox was preparing to leave office, he announced that Carrillo Prieto's office would close, though it remained open until late March.

For now, Calderon's staff says it has no plans to set up a similar office, leading to criticism from human rights activists.

Calderon has used "the military to legitimize himself," said Julio Mata, who heads an organization of relatives of those who disappeared in the dirty war. That provides less incentive for thorough probes of past military abuses, he said.

"It's a joke for the entire country. There are no investigations now," he said.

Kate Doyle, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based research group National Security Archive, says that while the major cases such as the student massacre have been closed, most of the lesser-known disappearances have yet to be fully investigated.

In 2002, Fox declassified millions of documents, releasing them to Mexico's National Archive for viewing by scholars, journalists, victims' family members and, with a special permit, the general public.

Doyle wants all the files released back to the National Archive.

"The actual sequestering of what may be some of the most important documents on the dirty war is symbolic to me of the total lack of will of the Mexican political establishment to see through the process of truth and reconciliation about the past," she said. "I'm almost speechless because it's so infuriating to me."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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