Image: Echeverria
Daniel Aguilar  /  Reuters file
Former Mexican president Luis Echeverria is charged with involvement in the killings of dozens of protesters.
updated 7/1/2006 12:32:46 AM ET 2006-07-01T04:32:46

Former Mexican President Luis Echeverria was placed under house arrest Friday on genocide charges stemming from a 1968 student massacre, an unprecedented move coming just two days before the country elects a new president.

A state investigator formally placed the 84-year-old Echeverria under arrest as crowds of reporters waited outside his ivy-covered Mexico City mansion. It was the first time a former Mexican president has been arrested.

“My client is mortified,” Echeverria attorney Juan Velasquez told reporters. “Nobody wants to be served an arrest warrant, especially one for genocide.”

Echeverria was interior secretary, a powerful position overseeing domestic security, when Mexican troops ambushed mostly peaceful student protests at Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza on Oct. 2, 1968, just before the capital hosted the Olympics. Officially, 25 people were killed, though human rights activists say as many as 350 may have died.

Special prosecutors say they have reviewed military documents indicating 360 sharpshooters fired from buildings surrounding Tlatelolco Plaza. The attack is considered one of the darkest moments of modern Mexican history.

At his home, Echeverria calmly signed the document recognizing the arrest warrant, which will be enforced by federal agents, said Jose Manuel Luis Jimenez, the investigator for Special Prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo.

Lawyer says timing suspicious
The former president’s lawyer said Echeverria was innocent and that the arrest warrant was timed to influence Sunday’s closely fought presidential vote.

“Obviously, this is very convenient for some parties during the election season,” Velasquez said.

Echeverria was placed under house arrest because a 2004 law allows judges to keep elderly suspects out of overcrowded jails.

Echeverria’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was trailing in third place in pre-election opinion polls. Ruling party candidate Felipe Calderon is locked in a tight battle with leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor.

Prosecutors had been trying to convince Mexican courts to authorize Echeverria’s arrest, but previous attempts were blocked by the courts.

Special prosecutor Carrillo, appointed by outgoing President Vicente Fox, brought criminal charges against Echeverria for his alleged involvement in the killings of dozens of students in two separate Mexico City protests: in 1968, when he was Mexico’s interior secretary, and in 1971, when he was president.

The former president has been briefly hospitalized twice in the past year and is considered to be in poor health.

Alleged ‘concentration camps’ in 1970s
In February, a leaked draft of a government report on Mexico’s “dirty war” alleged the government ordered soldiers to torture, rape and execute people as part of a counterinsurgency campaign from 1960-80.

The president at the time of the 1968 killings, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, died in 1979.

The report said the most brutal period occurred under Echeverria’s presidency, from 1970-76, when military bases allegedly served as “concentration camps” and the government “implemented a genocide plan that was closely followed during his reign.” During that time, guerrillas were blamed for a series of kidnappings and attacks on soldiers.

Fox’s administration said it did not endorse the draft, and would release a complete version later, but has yet to do so.

The unedited draft alleges the crimes were committed during the administrations of Echeverria and Diaz Ordaz, as well as presidents Jose Lopez Portillo, in office from 1976-82, and Adolfo Lopez Mateos, in office from 1958-64.

Fox promised to prosecute Mexico’s past crimes after his 2000 election victory, which ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. He named the special prosecutor Carillo shortly after taking office. Fox, who is barred from seeking re-election, is due to step down Dec. 1.

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