Las Americas

Skeletal Justice


In an unprecedented acknowledgment that its hands were sullied during the so-called “Dirty War” against 1970-era guerrilla bands, the Mexican military has issued arrest warrants for two generals who ran the army-police counter-insurgency campaign in this conflictive state and are thought responsible for the forced disappearance of hundreds of local farmers a generation ago.

Francisco Quiroz and Mario Arturo Chaparro Acosta are charged with 143 counts of premeditated homicides between 1973 and 1979. Most of the dead are thought to have been sympathizers of guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas, whose Party of the Poor had deep popular support along the Costa Grande of this Pacific state. In a macabre echo of Argentina’s dirty war, the generals are charged with dumping the victims from Mexican air force planes into the ocean.

The issuance of arrest orders was initially hailed by human rights groups as a breakthrough. But a closer look sparks suspicions that the army has engineered a military coup to head off a widening civilian probe into responsibilities for dirty war atrocities. Indeed, trying the generals in a military court will preclude civilian prosecution, affirms special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, who was appointed by President Vicente Fox last year to delve into at least 275 civilian disappearances during the counter-insurgency campaign.

Carrillo Prieto says that nearly a hundred more high-ranking military officers may be involved in the crimes, among them former Defense Secretary Enrique Cervantes, a childhood friend and fellow cadet of Quiroz who was also active in Guerrero and who apparently assured his protege’s promotion to brigadier general. Both Generals Quiroz and Chaparro are themselves the sons of generals–Chaparro, who had a fearsome reputation for torturing suspected guerrilla fighters, is a graduate of the School of the Americas, a notorious academy (recently renamed) for torturers, and the U.S. Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The arrests were announced on the eve of the annual commemoration of the October 2, 1968 army-perpetrated massacre of hundreds of striking students in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco housing complex. Chaparro is alleged to have been a member of an army unit responsible for opening fire at Tlatelolco. Carrillo Prieto’s probe of that watershed event, which has included interrogation of former president Luis Echeverría (he declined to answer questions), has many retired dirty war-era civilian and military officials looking nervously over their shoulders. The military has always been sensitive about its participation in the killings, even forcing withdrawal of a grade school history text book that suggested army involvement.

To further whet suspicions of a coup to derail the special prosecutor’s investigation, chief military prosecutor Jaime Antonio López Portillo also sent Fox’s attorney general, Rafael Macedo de La Concha, a list of 37 members of the military killed in confrontations with Cabañas’ Party of the Poor, along with a request for prosecution of surviving members of guerrilla organizations, in connection with the soldiers‚ deaths. The request is expected to be viewed with sympathy by Macedo, an army general himself and López Portillo’s predecessor as chief military prosecutor. Macedo is the first military officer ever to serve as Mexico’s top law enforcer.

The 37 names on the army’s list represent a fraction of the estimated 350 troops killed in the dirty war in Guerrero. Cabañas, a rural school teacher who rose in rebellion in 1968, was himself killed six years later. Longtime residents of the area where much of the fighting was concentrated speak of more than 600 civilian supporters of Cabañas being disappeared or killed during the dirty war–126 members of the Cabanas family alone, charges Father Máximo Gómez, a controversial local priest. U.S. Special Forces and CIA advisors reportedly accompanied 25,000 Mexican troops in pursuit of Cabañas and his ragtag guerrilla army.

Up until the arrests of Quiroz and Chaparro, the military was loathe to concede that the dirty war ever even took place, never using the term which the Secretary of Defense considered an “Argentinean import.” In a recent interview with the daily La Jornada, retired general Alberto Quintanar, one of the 100 generals on the special prosecutor’s list, irately insisted, “What fucking dirty war? This was a clean war. We were ordered by the President to cleanse the country of Communism.” Asked about the disappearance of hundreds of Mexican citizens while in military custody, the general claimed he had “never seen a disappeared person.”

Military prosecutor López Portillo did not have to reach very far to put the pinch on Generals Quiroz and Chaparro. Both have been housed on drug charges since August 2000 at Military Camp #1 on the western edge of Mexico City, reportedly with full tennis court privileges. Ironically, hundreds of political prisoners were held in clandestine cells at that military installation, according to the testimony of an ex-army sharpshooter who confessed to having executed dozens of hooded suspected rebels between 1977 and 1980, before deserting to Canada.

Both Quiroz and Chaparro are charged with protecting the late narco baron Amado (“The Lord of the Skies”) Carrillo, for which they were purportedly gifted with expensive cars, jewelry, and luxury apartments. The Quiroz-Chaparro drug case is a hot potato that has been tossed back and forth between civilian and military courts for the past two years. The generals were apparently employed in civilian law enforcement when the alleged protection was proffered. At issue in both the drug and the human rights indictments is the so-called military “fuero‚” the constitutional guarantee that the military is exempt from civilian prosecution. In accordance with long-standing military tradition, members of the armed forces charged with violations of civil or military codes of justice are tried by a council of war or court martial. Such proceedings almost always take place behind locked doors with no oversight or accountability to civilian authorities. The fuero is a sacrosanct symbol of the military’s time-honored impunity within Mexico’s ruling structures. The armed forces’ control of its own justice system is a key step in the complicated dance between civilian and military authority that has kept the army in its barracks and out of politics since the late 1930s.

Initially supported as a precedent-setting order, the indictment of Quiroz and Chaparro by a military court now generates abundant skepticism in the human rights community. “The military justice system has a poor track record in investigating charges of abuse against civilians. There is a lack of transparency in these proceedings. The generals should be tried in civilian courts,” was the measured assessment of José Miguel Vivanco, the Latin American director for Human Rights Watch. Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, a longtime Mexican human rights activist whose son, a member of a guerrilla band, vanished while in military custody in 1976, was less diplomatic. “The army makes up the rules, accuses itself, absolves itself, and everyone goes home happy,” she said. “It’s the same old story–the army washes its dirty laundry in house.”

Moreover, the conviction of Generals Quiroz and Chaparro in a military court on multiple homicide charges is anything but assured. The charges apparently rest on the testimony of ex-army captain Gustavo Tarin, who was once assigned to the Pie de la Cuesta military base in Acapulco, and later became a high-ranking police official under Chaparro. The complex interchange of military and police personnel during the dirty war makes it difficult to pin blame for the deaths and disappearances on either institution.

According to a summary of Tarin’s testimony, the 143 victims attributed to the generals were stopped at army-police roadblocks, transported to Pie de la Cuesta where they were tortured and murdered, and their bodies tossed from planes into the Pacific. The army’s methodology was recently corroborated by General José Francisco Gallardo, released himself last March after eight years in prison for demanding an ombudsman to defend lower-ranking troops in military courtrooms. In the 1970s, when Gallardo was attached to a military base outside Guadalajara, he guarded 11 young political prisoners as they were being loaded onto an airplane. Their bodies–some of the victims were thought to be still alive–were subsequently dropped into Lake Chapala. During the dirty war of the 1970s, Acapulco surfers would often find unidentified bodies floating in the bay near the exclusive Punto Diamante enclave. Other body parts were found stuffed into the city’s sewers.

But Tarin is not exactly a reliable witness against his former colleagues. Having served a few years in Chihuahua for murder, the captain, once an employee of Amado Carrillo’s Juárez Cartel, is now an informant for U.S. drug enforcers. In 1999, after he testified as to the location of mass graves of drug war victims, the U.S. FBI spent eight days digging up a ranch near the border on what proved to be a classic wild goose chase.


John Ross is headed for El Norte to try and raise funds for his survival as an independent reporter.