Mexico's History Test

Article excerpt

In the early hours of Aug. 11, 1976, Margarita Lopez Portillo was riding through Mexico City when a taxi swerved in front of her car. Four urban guerrillas, three men and a pregnant young woman, jumped out firing submachine guns. Margarita's car slammed into a drugstore; wounded, her chauffeur threw his body over his employer to protect her. Her bodyguards, traveling in a car behind, opened fire, killing one of the attackers as the other three fled.

The violent kidnapping attempt was nothing new in 1970s Mexico. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)-- already in power for four decades--was fighting off attacks from 29 scattered leftist groups numbering about 1,800 revolutionaries. But this one had a twist. The target's brother, Jose Lopez Portillo, was about to take power as Mexico's president. Once in office, Lopez Portillo intensified the crackdown against violent revolutionaries, the attack on his sister fresh in his mind." It was a warning of what the future would be like if the guerrilla phenomenon got stronger," 81-year-old Lopez Portillo said in an interview with NEWSWEEK.

The female assailant that day, shot in the left arm, went deep underground. Alicia de los Rios Merino, a member of the Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre, sometimes called her family from safe houses, always using the alias "Suzana." On Jan. 6, 1978, she phoned her sister Marta in a panic. There had been a gun battle, and she was holed up in a Mexico City house, surrounded by police. The next day Marta flew to Mexico City, where officials told her to look for Alicia among the cadavers in the morgue. She was not there.

Her family now is convinced that Alicia is one of Mexico's "disappeareds": seized by security forces during turbulent times, but never seen again. The numbers--465 people between 1970 and 1982--are not dramatic by Argentinian or Chilean standards. But suddenly the case of Mexico's disappeareds has risen high on the agenda of President Vicente Fox.

Upon taking power last December, ending 71 years of PRI rule, Fox vowed to examine old cases of corruption and human-rights abuses. But despite growing pressure for a truth commission--such as those in South Africa or Chile--to exorcise the country's dirty secrets, Fox's choices are far from simple. Talk of a truth commission has enraged the PRI, which remains powerful enough in Congress to paralyze his reform program. If the government looks into too many dark corners, says Federico Estevez, a political scientist in Mexico City, "there could be major collateral damage."

The explosion seems to be coming nonetheless. A prominent academic, the first outsider granted access to Mexican spy records in 70 years, was able to review intelligence reports of 11 people who had vanished; the documents show that 10 had been in government custody. In his initial search, one entry in particular stood out, says the academic, Sergio Aguayo, a former leftist radical himself who shared his findings with NEWSWEEK. He was looking for information about Enrique Perez Mora, a boyhood friend who had joined the rebels and was eventually killed, when he stumbled on the following notation, dated Jan. 6, 1978: "Alicia de los Rios Merino, who is detained for being a member of the Liga, said she had been the lover of the deceased [Enrique Perez Mora], with whom she had a child..." It was the present tense--"who is detained"-- that alerted Aguayo, a professor at the Colegio de Mexico. "I knew I had something very important," he says. "It was the first documented proof that the state was responsible for a disappearance."

The daughter of an apple grower in the northern state of Chihuahua, Alicia de los Rios Merino joined the guerrillas in 1973. One afternoon, Alicia, then 21, announced to her family that she was leaving home for good to help wage war against the Mexican government. Her parents begged her not to go: only a semester remained before Alicia was to graduate from college as an electrical engineer. …