Human Rights and the Dirty War in Mexico

by Kate Doyle

National Security Archive, May 11, 2003


Twenty-five years ago, during the worst years of Mexico's dirty war, a new consciousness began to dawn in the United States about human rights.

The U.S. government was in turmoil. The scandals leading to impeachment proceedings and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, the fall of Saigon, and revelations about CIA operations in countries such as Cuba, Chile and the Congo prompted the U.S. Congress to seek ways to incorporate human rights into the conduct of American foreign policy.

Beginning in 1973 and through the 1970s, lawmakers used foreign aid bills to push the government to consider human rights in countries receiving U.S. security or economic assistance. By 1977, these efforts resulted in the first formal "Human Rights Report" published by the State Department, and the creation of a new office of human rights and humanitarian affairs.

The reports did not have much effect in Mexico. According to Lawrence Sternfield, who as chief of the CIA station in Mexico in 1977 was in the best position to know, "There was absolutely no mention of human rights while I was there. Not one word was spoken about it with my counterparts. It wasn't something that we broached or they broached. The relationship we had with the DFS [the Dirección Federal de Seguridad, Mexico's domestic intelligence service] was about pure intelligence gathering."

"After all," Sternfield continued during a phone interview, "this was the height of the Cold War, and our efforts were focused against the Soviet target. Not that we weren't aware that the Mexicans were doing bad things when they picked up people. But we didn't raise that with them."

Today in Mexico, researchers are digging through newly-released archives of the dirty war, and finding fresh evidence that government agents abducted, tortured and murdered hundreds of Mexicans during the sexenios of Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo. Declassified U.S. records are also providing new details about the scope of the crisis.

But despite emerging revelations about Mexico's official involvement in brutal human rights crimes, declassified and public documents show that in the 1970s U.S. citizens knew little about what was unfolding just south of their border.

A Policy is Born

American interest in human rights policy emerged after the Second World War, when that conflict's terrible toll prompted an international call for the promotion of the rights and liberties of all citizens.

Cold War security interests relegated human rights to a unenforceable symbol during the 1950s and 60s, but the foreign policy scandals of the Nixon and Ford administrations compelled Congress to act. Reports of CIA assassination programs in Vietnam, the use of torture by agents trained by U.S. police advisors in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and the American role in the overthrow of Chile's President Allende fed a growing sense of outrage about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the early 1970s.

In the face of mounting evidence of dirty tricks and brutal policies, lawmakers rebelled against their President. Through a series of increasingly tough measures, Congress ordered the White House and the Department of State to slow or slash aid to countries responsible for human rights abuses. In 1976, Congress passed an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act requiring the Secretary of State to publish an annual human rights report.

As Congress and the executive branch wrestled over human rights in the United States, Mexico was experiencing a period of unprecedented violence. According to the report on the "disappeared" released in late 2001 by the National Commission on Human Rights, abductions of Mexicans by government agents were at an all-time high, with over 350 documented cases between 1974-1978. (Note 1) Amnesty International, the only international human rights group closely following developments in Mexico at the time, reported extensively on allegations of torture, including the use by Mexican police forces of "systematic beatings, near drowning and electric shocks." (Note 2)

1974 was the first year that the U.S. embassy in Mexico was required by Washington to report on the human rights situation. Congress had inserted Section 32 to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1973, calling on President Nixon to deny U.S. economic and security assistance to nations that interned or imprisoned citizens for political purposes. On April 19, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Joseph John Jova sent a reply to a query from the State Department that minimized the government's involvement in violations, while providing thinly-veiled justification for illegal tactics used by the government in its crackdown on armed opposition.

Jova's cable equivocated on the question of political prisoners in Mexico, claiming that the government did not detain citizens for political reasons, "except when faced with active, armed opposition that potentially threatens the security of the state." Expression of political beliefs that were contrary to Mexican government positions were, wrote Jova, "usually tolerated within limitsor at worse, discouraged through mild pressures."

The ambassador continued: "Where GOM [Government of Mexico] remains uncompromising (and indeed may have stiffened its attitude in recent months) is in respect to those persons who have taken up arms against the state. The GOM argues (and, we think, with some justification,) that such persons, whatever their professed motivation, have committed felonies (murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, etc.) and are therefore sought, apprehended and punished not for their beliefs but for their concrete acts.

"It is in dealing with the perpetrators of such acts that GOM appears frequently to overstep legally prescribed procedures. There are recurrent reports of 'suspects' whose only connection with anti-governmental activity may be blood relationship with wanted guerrillas; of civilians detained extra-constitutionally by military authorities; and of prisoners tortured in detention. Lately, there have been indications also that GOM has murdered some prisoners after extracting all information they have to give

"Important point in Embassy's opinion, however," wrote the ambassador, "is that GOM in these instances appears to be responding - however heavy-handedly - to legitimate and serious provocation by armed opponents who seek its overthrow and who in last several years have come to constitute a genuine threat to public order in several parts of the country."

Not only was the Mexican crackdown understandable, the United States had no intention of pressing Echeverría about it. At the request of the State Department, the First Secretary of the U.S. embassy T. Frank Crigler met later that year with a representative of the Foreign Relations Secretariate (Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores - SRE) to discuss "U.S. interests in the current human rights situation."

When SRE official Jorge Palacios Treviño asked if the U.S. sought a statement from the government about human rights in Mexico, Crigler hastened to reassure him "that there was no intention on our part whatever to meddle in Mexico's internal affairs, but that we simply wished to cooperate and consult with the Mexican government on means by which other nations might be encouraged to pay attention to human rights values."

That, of course, was the crux of the matter. Declassified U.S. documents from 1968-78 show clearly that the United States knew the Mexican government was committing grave human rights violations - they also show that the U.S. was uninterested in publicizing that fact, either to the Mexican government or to the U.S. Congress.

But popular pressure on the U.S. government grew between Nixon's resignation in 1974 and the election of Jimmy Carter in November 1976.

In February 1976, Henry Kissinger's State Department cabled all overseas posts alerting them to congressional interest in human rights and requesting a report that could be used by the administration in coming deliberations about U.S. aid programs. Calling the promotion of human rights "a principal goal of U.S. foreign policy," the cable reminded embassies of the "considerable public and media attention to human rights questions in U.S. foreign affairs."

Political officer John Hamilton drafted a straightforward reply on March 24, 1976, describing a "pattern of human rights violations" in several areas, including torture - characterized as a common tactic during police interrogations - and arbitrary arrest and detention. Hamilton warned that Mexico took an especially hard-line against people it suspected of involvement in armed opposition: "We believe the Government has little qualms in acting to destroy opponents who use terrorism as a tactic."

And what did the unclassified report that resulted from Hamilton's review look like? It is a two-page document, sanitized to the point of meaninglessness. There is one reference to the Echeverría administration's response to armed groups: "The Mexican Government refuses to accede to terrorist demands and strong enforcement action appears to have thinned terrorist ranks." The word "torture" does not appear.

Not a key issue

The first country team to occupy the U.S. embassy after the election of Jimmy Carter as president also wrote blunt and honest cables to Washington about Mexico's human rights problems, but strongly cautioned against making their findings known.

"While Embassy cannot prove it, it is believed that Mexican security officials have dealt with terrorists in the past by murdering them instead of bringing them to trial," wrote the political section in September 1977. The cable warned, however, that "Public release would be harmful to the future course of U.S.-Mexican relations. While we should monitor human rights performance in Mexico, especially through contacts with influential groups, the Embassy should not enter into actual investigation of human rights violations. Such an investigative effort would be counterproductive, interpreted as intervention in the internal affairs of Mexico, and therefore politically impossible."

Concerns about damaging relations with Mexico were combined with the relative low priority of human rights - even during the Carter administration - in comparison to other, more pressing matters.

Ambassador Patrick J. Lucey arrived at the embassy in 1977. Lucey was a political appointee, and a strong advocate of Carter's foreign policies, including his stance on human rights. Reached by telephone and e-mail at his home in Wisconsin, the ambassador did not remember human rights being a central issue during his tenure. He recalled, "[We] did not think of the López Portillo regime as the dark days. Instead, we looked back to 1968 when all of the students were killed just before the Mexico City Olympics. Those were the really dark days and when I was there we were still arguing with the Mexican government about just how many were killed."

According to Lucey, the issues that occupied him and his staff the most were trade, migration, oil and drugs. Their policy agenda was not invented in the embassy - it was based on signals coming out of Washington.

In late 1978, the White House conducted a sweeping review of U.S.-Mexican relations at the request of President Carter. One annex from the classified Presidential Review Memorandum dealt exclusively with human rights. In it, the National Security Council acknowledged grave abuses by the Mexican forces, naming the paramilitary group "White Brigade" as responsible for many of the worst abuses.

"In its drive to eradicate terrorists the White Brigade and other security force elements have sometimes ignored the human rights of the suspects and Mexican judicial procedures security forces have tortured and executed suspects and are responsible for the disappearances of as many as 200-300 persons over the last decade."

But in discussing possible U.S. policy approaches, the White House agreed with its embassy in Mexico - that to try and speak forcefully to the Mexican government about abuses would likely backfire. "It would be ill-advised and counter-productive for us to take Mexico to task publicly for its domestic violations of human rights. We will continue to use quiet diplomacy"

The earliest human rights reports, as a result, were aimed less at truly informing the American people about the situation in Mexico than they were to present an acceptable public face to the problem. U.S. citizens would not comprehend the scope of Mexico's use of repressive tactics for many years to come.

In the United States, it took a generation for human rights to truly enter the culture of foreign policy practice. Today, the State Department's annual report is one of the most comprehensive and detailed accounts of human rights in Mexico produced by any institution.

Embracing human rights also cost a generation in Mexico. Only now, three decades later, is Mexico beginning to come to grips with the fact that the government was responsible for torturing and murdering its own people. It remains to be seen whether the country is ready to act on that realization.

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