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Imprisoned general’s case a litmus test for Vicente Fox


Francisco Gallardo went to Washington to fulfill a personal, and political, mission. Gallardo’s father, a brigadier general in the Mexican army, has spent nearly eight years in a jail on the outskirts of Mexico City. A military court in 1993 found Brig. Gen. Jose Gallardo guilty of theft and destroying military property and sentenced him to 28 years in prison.

Amnesty International and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights argue that the charges brought against Gallardo are bogus. They say the general languishes in prison because of his call for reforms to end corruption and human rights abuses by Mexico’s armed forces.

With help from Amnesty, Francisco Gallardo spent a week in Washington earlier this spring, meeting with Pentagon officials and members of Congress to urge them to use their leverage to help win his father’s release.

His efforts apparently have yielded results. Last month, 36 members of Congress, led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), signed an open letter to Mexican President Vicente Fox, asking him to look into the general’s case. That letter, says Amnesty’s Amy Simpson, was followed only days later by a Mexican court issuing an unprecedented resolution ordering a district judge in the State of Mexico to accept an appeal that Gen. Gallardo had filed in February.

Brig. Gen. Gallardo was one of the rising stars of the Mexican army at the time of his arrest. But he had an idealistic streak that he nurtured by taking political science courses at the left-leaning National Autonomous University of Mexico. Gallardo’s studies -- which he pursued clandestinely since they were prohibited by the military -- led him to the conclusion that Mexico’s armed forces needed an independent ombudsman’s office to investigate charges of corruption and human rights abuses involving military personnel.

The armed forces that Gallardo had hoped to reform had a deplorable human rights record. They had participated in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, in which more than 300 unarmed students were gunned down. They had been accused of “disappearing” hundreds of people in Guerrero state in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign in the 1970s. And they were known for siding with large landowners and Institutional Ruling Party officials in local political and land disputes.

In the late 1980s, Gallardo decided to start speaking out publicly in favor of military reform. The army responded by filing a series of charges against the general -- none of which stood up, even though the cases were tried in military court. But in December 1993, one month after publishing an article calling for the creation of an ombudsman’s office, a military court convicted Gallardo of stealing horse feed and destroying documents to cover up his crime.

During the years Gallardo has spent in prison, Mexico’s armed forces seem to have gone out of their way to prove the need for the reforms Gallardo has suggested. The army has been implicated in numerous cases involving serious human rights violations, including the two worst politically motivated massacres in Mexico since 1968: the slaughter of 45 Tzotzil Indians in the hamlet of Acteal, Chiapas, in December 1997 (NCR, Jan. 23, 1998), and the gunning down of 17 peasants in Aguas Blancas, Guerrero, in June 1995.

Amnesty International has noted the army’s increased involvement in human rights crimes, especially in the context of counterinsurgency operations in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero states. “Torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances and arbitrary detentions are widespread in Mexico,” A 1999 Amnesty report said, citing the military’s participation in these abuses. “Suspects have been detained, held in secret detention and subjected to torture -- typically in order to extract confessions against suspected supporters of the armed opposition.” The army’s growing role in policing the nation, the report added, was encouraging local political leaders and landowners “to believe they can act with impunity.”

During a visit to Mexico in November 1999, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, criticized Mexico’s military judicial system, in which cases involving civilians and army personnel permit no civilian input. Robinson said she supported Gallardo’s idea of a military ombudsman.

The Gallardo case is a litmus test for President Vicente Fox, who has vowed to clean up Mexico and complete its democratic transformation after more than seven decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Before his inauguration, Fox had promised to re-examine Gallardo’s case, raising the hopes of the general’s family that he would soon be released.

Gallardo’s imprisonment and other continuing human rights problems in Mexico -- particularly in the southern part of the country -- serve as reminders that free markets do not guarantee “freedom” and that formal democracy does not ensure the right to dissent. In the struggle against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and other neoliberal offensives, progressives must remember to combine human rights concerns with economic arguments.

Rick Mercier is a freelance journalist based in Fredericksburg, Va. He has written on Mexico for In These Times, Third World Resurgence and Knight Ridder’s Progressive Media Project.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001