Human Rights in Mexico

Interview: Mexican Human-Rights Activist Gen. José Gallardo

Tlateloco Protest
Mexican police arrest a student during an Oct. 1, 2001 demonstration marking the anniversary of the 1968 "Tlatelolco Massacre," when the army killed more than 300 demonstrators (Photo: AFP).  

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 human-rights abuses.

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 steps?

Gen. Gallardo: 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 investigated.

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 Azules.

They believe that site holds lots of gas and oil.

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 human rights.