Forced displacements and disappearances. Vietnam-style strategic hamlets. Death flights over the Pacific. All this and more terrorized the mountain communities near Acapulco, Mexico, during the years when the resort was reaching its apex as a favored international destination for fun-seeking beach lovers in the early and mid-1970s. In response to a popular guerrilla insurgency, the Mexican army and security forces escalated what became known as the Dirty War.
“There was a lot of sadism and brutality,” said Hilda Navarette, commissioner for the Guerrero State Truth Commission, an offical organism created by the Guerrero State Congress in 2012 to probe the Dirty War and unravel the truth about hundreds of still missing people.
“The Mexican press had a very sad role,” Navarette said in an interview, adding that national and international opinion were kept in the dark about Mexican government atrocities underway with the knowledge of Washington.
Four decades later, Navarette and her fellow commissioners are preparing to deliver a final report this year to the Guerrero State Congress. Based on archival finds and original testimonies from victims’ relatives and survivors, the report will be of “transcendental importance” in revealing the fates of nearly 400 disappeared residents, said Octavio Navarette, Hilda’s brother and a Truth Commission assistant.
“For the first time, the report will give documented proof of what happened to the disappeared political prisoners,” he said.
In the course of their research, Truth Commission investigators ran across other interesting finds including the CIA code names assigned to Mexican presidents on the agency’s payroll, and the Mexican army’s use of coded language to describe detainees as “paquetes,” or packets, Navarette added.
Both Navarettes experienced the Dirty War first-hand. In September 1974, Hilda and her family were taken from their home by Mexican troops and forced to spend the night in the town plaza of Coyuca de Benitez, a rural municiplaity neighboring Acapulco, while soldiers ransacked their home and destroyed books considered subversive. Octavio was later detained for 15 days, becoming, in his own words, a “candidate” for forced disappearance.
Although the Dirty War extended to Chihuahua and other parts of the Mexican Republic, the Guerrero State Truth Commission is the only such state-level endeavor currently in progress. And getting to the truth hasn’t hasn’t been easy an easy task, according to Truth Commission staff and directors.
Originally planning to its conduct its investigation partially based on the findings of two previous government probes, the National Human Rights Commission’s 2001 report and a subsequent one authored by a now-defunct, special prosecutorial office created by the administration of former President Vicente Fox (Femossp), the Truth Commission encountered obstacles when the federal attorney general’s office, the National Human Human Rights Commission and the Mexican army did not allow commission staff access to their records and files.
“We want to have access to the testimonies the (Femossp) did,” Hilda Navarette said. “They interviewed soldiers-something we haven’t been able to do.”
Nonetheless, the Truth Commission has managed to gather more than 350 testimonies, review declassified U.S. files and analyze some records in the National Archive. The information pertains to about 400 missing persons, but the true number of peope who were forcibly disappeared in Guerrero from 1969 to 1979, the years examined under the Truth Commission’s mandate, could be much higher, Navarette acknowledged.
In the Truth Commission’s threadbare Acapulco office, a large banner with the young faces of disappeared Guerrero residents, most of them men but some women too, stands in the front room.
Since almost the beginning, staff and commissioners have experienced disquieting incidents, according to the Truth Commission.
Early on, federal police officers paid sudden visits to the organism’s offices in Chilpancingo and Acapulco, breaking a window during one unexpected call. In the municipality of Atoyac de Alvarez, Ground Zero in the Dirty War, Truth Commisison vehicles have been followed by strangers on motorcycles.
In late January, Commissoners Pilar Noriega and Nicomedes Fuentes were heading back to the state capital of Chilpancingo when their vehicle was intercepted by armed men and forced off the road after a gunshot was fired. Abandoning the vehicle, Noriega and Fuentes spent the night in the boondocks. The pair later found their vehicle left on the roadside, with Truth Commission documents including testimonies from victims’ relatives missing.
While not discounting the possibility of a common robbery in a state with a high crime rate, Truth Commission President Jose Enrique Gonzalez did not rule out that other motives were behind the agression against Noriega and Fuentes.
“Hopefully, (police) investigations will lead to the capture of the guilty ones, as is a state obligation, and the work of the (Truth Commission) could satisfactorily conclude,” Gonzalez said in a statement.
With the passage of so much time since the Dirty War, the question of the viability of justice naturally comes into the foreground, especially since many of the officals implicated in the repression are now beyond the arm of the law.
“We can’t bring the perpetrators to justice because they are dead,” Octavio Navarette acknowleged. A veteran journalist and writer who has followed the Dirty War for decades, Navarette mentioned the late Mexican General Arturo Acosta Chaparro as among the Dirty War’s deceased architects.
Acosta Chaparro, who later spent 8 years in a military prison for alleged collusion with drug traffickers before being exonerated and honored for his service during the Calderon administration, was gunned down gangland-style on a Mexico City street in 2012, just as the Truth Commission was getting launched.
During the Fox administration, the Femossp unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute two other senior officials implicated in human rights violations and cromes, former President Luis Echeverria and former Federal Security Directorate chief Miguel Nazar Haro. Both men have since since passed away.
Family reparations, the inclusion of the Dirty War into Mexican school textbooks as official history and, perhaps, a government pledge to never resort to the human rights violations committed by its agents back in the 1970s, are more likely outcomes of the Truth Commission’s final report.
Still, the Truth Commission has filed an petition for an audience with the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which issues mandatory rulings to member states, including Mexico.
Following its planned presentation to the Guerrero State Congress, the report will be discussed at a public forum, the date of which has yet to be announced.
Former Guerrero lawmaker Ranferi Hernadez, a longtime Party of the Democratic Revolution activist who spent five years in French exile after another wave of government repression in the late 1990s, said Guerrero’s social movements would not permit the Truth Commission’s report to be delivered and then quickly forgotten.
“All the organizations are going to demand punishment for the responsible parties,” Hernandez told FNS. “There will be other demands, which we aren’t going to reveal right now.”
While the events that will be portrayed in the Truth Commission’s final report happened a couple of generations ago, some close observers detect similarities with contemporary violence in Guerrero, which remains submerged in bloody disputes between organized crime groups that routinely employ forced disappearance, population expulsions and extrajudicial execution as tactics.
Additionally, attacks on social movements, including the murders of 13 well-known leaders during the last two years, have coincided with the other outburts of violence.
“There is a mix of institutional and criminal violence,” said Roberto Ramirez, editor of the Guerrero edition of La Jornada daily. Ramirez hypothesized that the contemporary violence might be of criminal origin but contains a “political taint” in which longtime caciques, or political bosses, could be using criminal groups to carry out their dirty work instead of the other way around. The Dirty War left lasting impacts, Ramirez said, with perpetrators like Acosta Chaparro getting “entangled” in the intrigues of organized crime.
“The Dirty War created a group of delinquents with impunity,” he said. “What we see happening now is a consequence of this.”
For the Truth Commission’s Hilda Navarette, the two-year process of getting to the bottom of the truth has opened up an opportunity for healing, government accountablity and the public airing of issues critical to Mexican society and politics.
The longtime leader of the Voice of the Voiceless human rights group in Coyuca de Benitez, Navarette said she would like to see a public debate with the Mexican military over notions of national sovereignty and what it really means to be a defender of the people. By the same token, she continued, Mexico’s social movements have lessons to learn from the Dirty War chapter of history.
“Something we have to learn as social movements is to struggle within the limits of legality,” Navarette contended. “There has to be a dialogue between the state and society on how to resolve things.”
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico