Human-Rights Agency Makes Gains in Mexico Indictment in Corona Case Takes Edge off Criticism of Rights Record

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PROMINENT human-rights lawyer Norma Corona Sapien made a chilling prophecy shortly before she was gunned down in May 1990: "If something happens to me, those responsible will be Federal Judicial Police officers."

Until now, the suspected assassins remained unidentified. But her death was a crucial catalyst. Two weeks later, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced the formation of the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH).

It's taken nearly a year and a half, but last week the commission got a break in the highly publicized case, and the Salinas administration regained lost ground on human rights.

A Federal Judicial Police commander, Mario Alberto Gonzalez Trevino, was charged last Friday with the murder of Norma Corona and three other unrelated killings, as well as torture and illegal detention.

The breakthrough came on the heels of two stinging reports by Americas Watch and Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights group, that critique Mexico's human-rights situation.

"The Salinas administration has not reversed Mexico's long-standing policy of impunity for those who commit human-rights abuses," says a September America's Watch report.

Mexico's Attorney General Ignacio Morales Lechuga, who is responsible for the Federal Judicial Police, characterized Mr. Gonzalez Trevis antinarcotics work as "outstanding." But he said big drug busts did not put the commander above the law. Cracking the Corona case

Mr. Morales Lechuga credited the CNDH with cracking the case by obtaining testimony in recent days that his own investigators could not. "The witnesses had confidence in, they trusted in, the National Human Rights Commission but not in the work of us in the attorney general's office," he said at a press conference.

The movement on this case provides the CNDH with a feather in its cap. Begun last June, this ombudsman agency's main role is to investigate complaints of human-rights abuses and make recommendations to appropriate authorities. Since it began, the 260 staffers have received 4,868 complaints and made 119 recommendations. It has no legal authority but it does have President Salinas's backing.

"As currently composed, it is a force for good in Mexico," says Ellen Lutz of Americas Watch, a US-based human-rights group. "Commission President {Supreme Court Justice} Jorge Carpizo is strong, extraordinarily independent, and determined to track down abuses."

Amnesty International welcomes the legal and organizational reforms taken to date but states in its report that: "Torture continues to be widespread.... But those responsible have seldom been investigated and even more rarely prosecuted. …