No one was ever brought to justice for Mexico’s brutal “dirty war,” sparked by a police massacre of students in 1968. Now Andrés Manuel López Obrador has launched the first truth commission to address the government’s crimes.

Student protesters at Tlatelolco Plaza, Mexico City, are detained and loaded into a van, 1968. (Getty Images)

In October of 2020, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador signed an executive order forming Mexico’s first truth commission to investigate what is known as the guerra sucia, or “dirty war”: a seven-year period in the 1970s in which successive governments disappeared, imprisoned, tortured, and killed dissidents from a wide variety of backgrounds.

The number of disappeared will never be known, but a conservative estimate puts the figure at 1,500 over the seven-year period. Many were members of workers’, farmers’, teachers’, and other popular movements, together with guerrillas radicalized by the Tlaltelolco massacre of student protesters in 1968.

On June 22, 2022, at the symbolically important Campo Militar, or Military Field Number One — once a main torture center of the Mexican state — and in the presence of family members of the disappeared, López Obrador officially unveiled the five-member commission. Jacobin’s Kurt Hackbarth spoke with commissioner Dr Carlos A. Pérez Ricart, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City.

Kurt Hackbarth

The dirty war was particularly brutal in Mexico; in your words, it was “extended, premeditated and cruel.” You have also written that Mexico was both master and apprentice of the worst practices of repression in Latin America. Very little of this, however, is discussed in comparison with the better-known cases of other countries in the region. Why do you think this is?

Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

The dirty war was a global phenomenon and has to be understood, first of all, in the context of the Cold War. That said, it’s difficult to do a comparative analysis because each country had its own dirty war, its own process. What I think can be compared is the response of the society once it’s over.

In Argentina, where there was a savage dictatorship and a large number of disappeared, there was also a broad educational project that came in its wake, something that a country like Brazil did not have. Among other things, this means that a figure like Jair Bolsonaro would be unthinkable in today’s Argentina. Even in the context of a terrible economic crisis, nobody is even considering the possibility of a military regime returning to power, because of the educational process that occurred.

In Mexico, despite the cruelty of its dirty war, where thousands were disappeared and killed and thousands more were tortured, there was no such pedagogical process, no social construction of truth and a narrative that could provide meaning to what occurred. Instead, there were two processes. First, everything was justified as part of what was called the “theory of the demons,” where the state was simply responding to violent groups. This was how it was interpreted for years.

Second, the dirty war was portrayed as having been less intense or important than in other countries. Well, that’s false. It was very important, and moreover, the theory that the government was only reacting to subversion is also wrong: we have found that people who did not participate in the guerrilla movement were disappeared and killed in the same way. What was lacking in Mexico was a social construction of truth with the victims at the center.

Kurt Hackbarth

I suppose this amnesia might also have to do with the fact that Mexico never had an open dictatorship but rather a hegemonic process within an ostensibly democratic structure.

Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

Repression in Latin America was carried out by the military, the police, and the intelligence agencies. Authoritarianism does not choose civilians or soldiers or spies — it’s generalized and cannot only be linked to the army.

What the literature has shown over the last twenty years is that the repression was much greater, more systematic, and cruel than what we had previously imagined. And one of the tasks of the truth commission in Mexico will be to determine to what degree it was generalized and systematic, as well as to discover its distinctive features throughout the country. In a country as heterogeneous as Mexico, there were different kinds of repression — in Guerrero, Sinaloa, Sonora, Veracruz, and Chiapas, for example, and at different times. The commission will be studying the grave violations of human rights that took place over the twenty-five-year period from 1965 to 1990 — that is, before, during, and a little after what we know as the dirty war itself, which lasted from 1971 to 1978.

When we talk about grave violations of human rights perpetrated by the state, we’re not only talking about the dirty war. Our mandate goes beyond that to include other types of violations against society, ways that are not necessarily tied to fighting the guerrillas. I think, for example, of how the Mexican state was responsible for the torture, imprisonment, and disappearance of petty criminals, of drug addicts, of the urban poor, as Loïc Wacquant and other theorists of poverty have written about. The state also perpetrated violations against lesbians, transgender people, people who were stripped of their communities, religious minorities, and speakers of other languages.

Kurt Hackbarth

At the inaugural ceremony of the commission, the secretary of defense, General Luis Cresencio Sandoval provoked an angry reaction from the audience — many of them relatives of the disappeared — by stating that the names of the soldiers who died during the dirty war would be included in the armed forces’ Monument to the Fallen. Does this anticipate the difficulties that may arise in the commission’s relationship with the armed forces?

Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

In my view — and I’m not speaking for the commission here — the general’s statements were not only unfortunate but rude, and I reject them. It is not the task of the commission to pay homage to soldiers, and his comments did a great deal of harm to the trust we were generating among the commission, the victims, and the army. For the first time in history, a group of civilian researchers is inspecting the archives of the Mexican Army and performing a diagnosis of what exists in the different collections. We are going to be convening members of the military to speak on human rights violations, we are going to be visiting military facilities, we are making good headway on important cases that a lot of people don’t know about, that don’t appear on television, and then come these unfortunate statements that I, Carlos, interpret as a consequence of the tensions that exist within the army regarding the commission, a sort of, “Okay, we’ll open everything, we’ll cooperate, but we’re also going to get this.”

So I’m empathetic to his position and the internal negotiations that must be going on. I don’t know what and with whom, but it can’t be easy to move certain processes forward as the general secretary of the army. And this is what we have to do: maintain empathy in a work sense while at the same time being very firm about the fact that our mandate and obligation is with the victims abused by the Mexican state. Part of our mandate, incidentally, is to study human rights violations committed by members of the army against other members of the army or the police. We have a lot of testimonies from soldiers of lower rank who were abused by their superiors for not following orders.

Kurt Hackbarth

Critics say that the commission is little more than a simulation designed to shelve the whole issue of the dirty war. Others criticize it for not covering more recent crimes that they consider more pressing. Then there is the precedent of the special prosecutor’s office set up by the administration of Vicente Fox, which, in the words of one critic, wound up functioning as a “de facto amnesty for the perpetrators of the crimes of the past.” How can this commission ensure it won’t suffer the same fate?

Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

The dirty war wasn’t on anyone’s agenda until four years ago; it wasn’t even on the president’s agenda. This truth commission exists thanks to the efforts of the organized victims’ groups and assemblies who exerted pressure for it to happen. The idea, the project, the negotiation, the force came from the victims, and anyone who’s familiar with this process would consider it absurd to suggest that this is a project to rehabilitate the military.

The other critique is that the commission is insufficient and should be more like the CICIG [International Commission Against Impunity] in Guatemala. And to that we say, you’re right: it could be larger, it could cover other time periods, it could be many other things, but this is the most important initiative in the search for truth and justice regarding this period and it’s not a full stop. It shouldn’t be a full stop for anything, but rather the beginning of a broader process that will overtake this, a ladder to allow us to reach new scenarios of transitional justice and build the foundations for a new culture of human rights.

When I talk about a new culture of human rights, I mean rights for everyone, from the poor to the LGBTQ community and all of those who were seen as “other.” If we approach these communities and say, “You had rights and those rights were violated,” we are creating a new culture of legality. We can learn from what occurred in the commission in Colombia where gender, Afro, and indigenous perspectives were represented, in the commission in Peru where the issue of sexual torture was represented, and apply these theoretical perspectives to the Mexican context as well.

The idea is to expand the concept to people who don’t even know that they were violated by the state or who don’t interpret it is as such, and saw it as normal, part of life. And they don’t identify as victims because the concept of victim didn’t exist; they didn’t consider themselves possessors of rights. And say, “You, who were displaced or assaulted due to your religious orientation or for speaking another language or just because you were poor, you have rights. You can organize, you can demand reparations, the right to truth and justice is for you too, and not only for the circle of victims who were active on the Left and are well aware of their rights.”

Just to mention one case: the operation in the town of El Quemado, Guerrero, in 1972. The army came in, tortured eighty men, and took them prisoner. But what happened to the women? They were raped, they were forced to marry, in some cases forced to have children, and in others to take birth control pills. They are also victims of this process but until now have been erased. What happened to them? What happened to their children? Here we are broadening the concept of victim, not only focusing on what is obvious but ensuring that our narrative includes the wives, the mothers, the daughters, the sons.

Kurt Hackbarth

Your investigations may very well reveal that the United States played a larger role in the dirty war than what has previously been known. Is there any concern that the commission’s revelations could affect bilateral relations at a time when the interventionist role of the United States is being questioned on a number of fronts?

Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

What happens happens, and we’ll say what has to be said. In addition to being a global phenomenon, the dirty war connected transnational networks of repression. This is what Operation Condor has taught us. It’s impossible to grasp the authoritarian ecosystem without understanding the links, alliances, and shared interests among police departments, intelligence agencies, and the military. To give you an example: the majority of the disappearances in Uruguay took place in Argentina and were perpetrated by Argentinians; those from Chile as well. Until now, repression in Mexico has been viewed as solely a Mexican affair. So the variable the commission will bring in is, how do the archives of the United States — as well as those of Guatemala, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador — help us to understand the regional and transnational workings of this ecosystem of repression? We don’t yet have a clear picture, and that’s why our project will include a search of US archives using the Freedom of Information Act. We met last week with Kate Doyle, who is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive and an expert in US policy in Latin America. She is part of an advisory group to the commission and will be helping us access the archives of the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, and the DEA.

Kurt Hackbarth

You have written about the importance for the commission to create a politics of memory. There’s poetry in that term, but it also has a very practical aspect. How do you conceive of a politics of memory, and what is its importance for a democratic society that assumes responsibility for its past?

Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

We believe that the criminal and authoritarian circuits that have enabled the violence of the present were built in the period of the 1970s and ’80s. This was the period in which the authoritarian enclaves of the Mexican state were founded, and that’s why we believe that the violence and impunity of the past made possible the violence, impunity, and criminal networks of the present.

And that’s why the politics of memory is not and cannot be merely academic or academist; it has to speak to the present while obliging you to look at the past — to see it, resolve it, and be able to move forward, because there are wounds that were covered over but remained infected, and have to be closed. You have to look with one eye to the past to be able to advance with the other eye toward the present; that’s the dialectic here. It’s not easy, but the Mexico of today was created then.

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