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Melchor Ocampo, a Liberal politician, was murdered by Conservative forces in 1861. All images courtesy of the Benson Latin American Collection, General Libraries, UT-Austin LAS AMERICAS The Politics of Death BY PATRICK TIMMONS 11 he death penalty always seems to provide fodder for the myths of the living. One of the more widely circulated myths is that Mexico is de jure abolitionistthat capital punishment does not exist. After all, President Vicente Fox has made much of his general opposition to death sentences, especially those handed down to Mexican nationals in the United States. The Mexican government provides impressive legal assistance to more than 50 of its nationals on U.S. death rows \(see “la Abogada de Mexico,” World Court in the Hague found that the United States violated the rights of these nationals and ordered American authorities to provide meaningful review of their sentences. But Mexico’s own Constitution permits the application of the death penalty in cetain circumstancesfor homicide, arson, kidnapping, as well as for treason and grave military crimes. Last November a military court imposed death sentences upon two soldiers convicted of killing superior officers; Fox commuted the sentences to life in prison. He has intermittently stated his intention to take capital punishment off the books once and for all, but so far little legislative progress has been made. To understand how the death penalty affects Mexico’s domestic and foreign policies, the Mexican Center of the University of Texas has organized a one-day, public symposium with scholars, lawyers, and public officials on April 14. The symposium coincides with an exhibition of rare materials held by UT’s Benson Latin American Collection documenting the history of capital punishment in Mexico. The exhibition reveals how Mexico has experimented with retaining and abolishing the death penalty, often to reinforce the legitimacy of a particular government. Among the images is that of a 1780 execution that depicts a garroting in Mexico City’s central plaza. The garroting took place outside the royal palace; afterward authorities hoisted the bodies on a scaffold to show the crowd. Were such executions common? According to historians of colonial Mexico, the Spanish used the death penalty infrequently and only for the most heinous of crimes. With Independence in 1821 the number of executions soared as a weak Mexican 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/09/04