Mexico’s dirty little war

The question I had for Joaquin, my father’s cousin, was what circumstances led him to join the Mexican Communist Party in the 1930s? A decade ago, I met him for the first and only time. He was one of my last surviving relatives and already in his late 80s.

The day I arrived at Santa Rosa Lima, in Queretaro state, Joaquin and several fellow octogenarian comrades had spent the morning by the side of Federal Highway 57, flagging motorists with their red banner messages of World Peace.

When we sat down to talk that afternoon, he insisted on showing me the photos of the camper he and his sister Guadalupe used during their grand tour after both retired. They traveled the country for more than a year to see its national parks and all of its topography, from one end to the other.

The journey ended at Ensenada in Baja California Norte on the Pacific shore.

Although he seemed like an eccentric instead of a militant, he was a party member the same time as Diego Rivera. He had to have witnessed the internal debates after Leon Trotsky was murdered in Mexico City, under Joseph Stalin’s orders from Moscow, in 1940.

When I asked my question, Joaquin said he found fraternity in the party. His comrades stood for social justice. I was given the impression of a Moose Lodge more than a gathering or revolutionists.

Still, he must have participated in demonstrations and strikes although he named none. He must have been very active since two of his sons received university scholarships to study in the Soviet Union.

When they returned to Mexico in the mid-1960s, they had masters’ degrees in physics and chemistry. One came back with a Russian wife. In both cases, they took teaching jobs.

One of them, Fernando, who lived at home, went out for cigarettes one evening and never returned. All efforts to find him went nowhere. Newspaper notices were no help. Fernando was never seen or heard from again.

Joaquin died not knowing what became of his son, whether he disappeared for political reasons, foul play or maybe an accident. In 2002, President Vicente Fox authorized the investigation into alleged human rights crimes by three previous presidents.

Last week, the Mexican government released a report acknowledging a "dirty war" against university students, leftists and activists during 18 years, from 1964 to 1982.

The report by Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo Prieto came just days before President Vicente Fox’s term ended on Dec. 1.

The investigation revealed details about the abuses that were official practice under presidents Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverria and Jose Lopez Portillo. Their violent policies targeted armed guerrillas and student protesters. They included the use of "massacres, forced disappearance, systematic torture, and genocide."

Some technical issues remain unresolved. The actual presidential orders, with signatures, have not been produced yet. And the commanders of the detention camps did not sign incriminating documents.

Still, this is as definitive and incriminating as any from the "dirty wars" of Central America, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina.

The report shows how the presidents sustained an extra-legal targeting of real and perceived enemies. The evidence comes from secret records in the hands of the military, intelligence and police agencies.

Echeverria, the last of the trio still alive, was accused of genocide but the charges were dismissed over a statute of limitations technicality. Still, we may not have heard the last of these cases or about the attempt to prosecute those responsible.

I scanned the report’s listing by name of 645 known "disappearances" without finding Fernando’s name. But the federal document also made reference to 99 extrajudicial executions and 2,000 torture cases where I didn’t find names attached. One of those with a "suspicious" background may have been up to no more than simply teaching physics.

(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service .E-mail: joseisla2(at) For more stories visit