Mexico President Vicente Fox has been under pressure from human-rights organizations to come through on his vow to bring to justice those who have been responsible for mass killings and unsolved murders over the past 30 years.

Fox’s latest test is the case of General Jose Francisco Gallardo, a man he freed after Gallardo spent eight years behind bars. Gallardo was released from Mexico City’s Chalco prison on February 7. Gallardo was interviewed Monday by detectives investigating the case of his former lawyer, Digna Ochoa, a human-rights activist gunned down October 19. Detectives believe that the military may have been involved in the murder.

Once considered a rising star in the Mexican Army, Gallardo, 55, was arrested and imprisioned in 1993 on charges of illegal enrichment and mismanagement of funds. The case dragged on, and in 1998 he was convicted of corruption and embezzlement. Gallardo contends that his 1993 arrest was in retaliation for an article he published in Forum magazine, calling for human-rights reforms in the armed forces. He also advocated the creation of an ombudsman’s office in the tightlipped and impenetrable world of the Mexican Army.

For eight years Gallardo, a husband and father of four children, insisted that the charges were false and won the support of human-rights organizations such as Cejil and Amnesty International — which declared him a “prisoner of conscience.”

In 1996, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights called for Gallardo’s release, and a hearing was scheduled on his continued detention on February 18, which would have been embarrassing for the Fox administration. Fox’s order commuting Gallardo’s sentence to time served does not pardon or declare him innocent of his charges, though the onetime brigadier general had insisted that he would not accept anything short of an acquittal.

Fox’s release of Gallardo shows that the president is at least willing to exercise his authority over the armed forces. His tor i cally, the military has had little civilian oversight, said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on the Mexican armed forces who teaches at Claremont-McKenna College.

The Gallardo case is really breaking new ground when it comes to denouncing army abuses, Ai Camp said. Until now, most cases within the army have been kept away from the public while the government has decided to leave those issues to the military. Gallardo challenged these traditions by speaking out. “He raised the issue in public, and that’s what got him into hot water with the military,” said Ai Camp, who wrote Generals in the Palacio: The Military in Modern Mexico.

As for Gallardo, he has said that he wants to be reinstated as a general and will keep pressing for reforms, especially to steer the military away from drug-enforcement duties, which he believes only lead to corruption. Gallardo is under the protection of Mexican police, who fear for his safety. “I will keep fighting for the human rights of all Mexicans, especially those within the military,” said Gallardo, as he embraced his family upon leaving. “My liberation was just the first step.”

LA Weekly