Luis Echeverría, Mexican politician with ailing legacy, dies aged 100

Luis Echeverría, who as Mexico’s top law enforcement official was accused of genocide for his role in a 1968 student massacre and later as president, oversaw a deep economic crisis and a violent “dirty war” against government opponents, died at his home on July 8, Mexican media reports said in Cuernavaca. He was 100.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador confirmed the death in official statements. The cause was not disclosed.

The October 1968 clash between federal troops and student protesters, days before the start of the Mexico City Olympics, drew international condemnation and became a defining moment in modern Mexican history. The killings also left Mr Echeverría with a tarnished legacy that lasted well beyond his troubled 1970-76 presidency.

Mr. Echeverría is “a failed, tragic figure in Mexican history,” Kate Doyle, a Latin American human rights scholar with the Washington-based National Security Archive, said in an interview. “It contained the possibility of modernity, the possibility of openness, the possibility of youth, a kind of future-oriented thinking. And he was ultimately destroyed by his inability to see beyond or save himself from the political apparatus.”

Mr. Echeverría quickly rose through the ranks in Mexico’s ruling PRI party after marrying into the family of a political boss. In 1964, at the age of 42, he became Minister of the Interior under President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz.

The powerful job gave Mr. Echeverría control of Mexico’s police and law enforcement machinery at a time when the government was spearheading crackdowns on students demanding reform. Despite the tremendous surge in economic growth since the late 1950s, little had been done to alleviate the plight of Mexico’s vast peasantry.

In October 1968, federal troops shot dead dozens of protesters in the capital’s Tlatelolco Square and imprisoned many more. Hundreds of citizens were injured.

Mr Echeverría’s exact role is still unknown, as is the exact death toll, but much of the blame lay with him and Díaz Ordaz. Mr Echeverría headed a government strategy group dealing with the protests at the time.

Under the PRI, whose candidates ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, outgoing Mexican presidents chose their successors, who were then assured of victory. Chosen by Díaz Ordaz, Mr. Echeverría continued Mexico’s fight against guerrillas and protesters as President.

Dozens more were killed by right-wing paramilitaries at a student protest in 1971, a reprisal Mr. Echeverría blamed on the mayor of Mexico City. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, 342 people have “disappeared” during Mr Echeverría’s presidency.

The 2000 election of Vicente Fox as the first modern non-PRI president led to the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the dirty war, including the student massacres of 1968 and 1971. Mr Echeverría was charged with genocide because the statute of limitations on murder had expired.

Mr. Echeverría denied responsibility for the deaths, and in 2007 a federal judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to try him. An appeals committee upheld that decision in 2009.

Luis Echeverría Álvarez was born in Mexico City on January 17, 1922 and received a bachelor’s and law degree from the National Autonomous University.

His political career began in 1945 when he married María Zuno, the daughter of a party leader in the state of Jalisco. The following year he joined the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by the Spanish acronym PRI, and became the private secretary to the party leader.

His wife, with whom he had eight children, died in 1999. A son, Álvaro Echeverría Zuno, died in 2020. A full list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.

In 1970, when Mr. Echeverría became the PRI’s youngest presidential candidate in nearly two decades, he campaigned across Mexico and said, “For me, it’s not just about winning, it’s about winning.” According to campaign literature, he traveled 35,100 miles and in 229 days delivered 850 speeches for an election he was sure to win.

During his campaign, he advocated land reform and tried to win the support of the poor, who made up almost half the country’s population. He defined himself as “neither to the right, nor to the left, nor in a static centre, but forward and upward”.

But Mr. Echeverría’s presidency was marked by deep economic turbulence, partly due to the global oil crisis. Deficit spending was exacerbated by an inability to collect tax revenue, and he was forced to devalue the peso twice at the end of his term.

Consistent with his populist rhetoric, he spent much of his spending on social programs, which angered many members of the business elite. Near the end of his tenure, oil was discovered in Mexico, allowing Mr. Echeverría to take on more foreign loans. The foreign debt rose from USD 3.5 billion to over USD 20 billion by the end of the term.

Mr. Echeverría did further damage to the economy by supporting a 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. This prompted many Jewish Americans to boycott Mexico, resulting in the cancellation of 30,000 hotel reservations and costing the country’s economy $200 million, George Grayson, an authority on Mexican politics, told the Los Angeles Times.

At the end of his presidency, Mr. Echeverría appointed Finance Minister José López Portillo as his successor. However, López Portillo’s economic management was even worse than Echeverría’s, leading to the 1982 peso devaluation and economic collapse.

In later years, Mr. Echeverría kept a low profile. He served as Mexico’s ambassador to Australia and was a representative to UNESCO. He also headed a Center for Third World Studies until his criticism of López Portillo caused the President to stop funding the institute. Luis Echeverría, Mexican politician with ailing legacy, dies aged 100

Dustin Huang

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