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Mexican leader's challenge: Staying safe once out of office

MEXICO CITY — Allegations of human rights abuses by Mexico's military bedevil President Felipe Calderon, raising a dilemma familiar to Latin American presidents: Where can he go upon leaving office to stay safe and out of court?

Already, speculation is growing in Mexico that Calderon, who has 10 months remaining in his six-year term, will leave the country after his tenure concludes, looking for refuge perhaps in the United States.

But that's no guarantee that he won't face legal troubles, as former presidents of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala and his own country have.

"Upon leaving office, he will become the most persecuted of Mexican presidents," columnist Ricardo Aleman wrote this week in the newspaper Excelsior. "The question is whether the state can guarantee the lives and assets of him and his family, or anyone else."

Calderon, 49, has made no public mention of what he'll do after the presidential sash comes off Dec. 1. His wife, Margarita Zavala, a former legislator, is thought to have political ambitions in Mexico.

As the head of a center-right government, Calderon presides over a battle to quell violence by organized crime groups that's left more than 50,000 people dead. Any number of gangsters could take revenge, and Calderon may worry about whether the reduced security detail after he leaves office makes his wife, two sons, daughter and him vulnerable.

Then there are potential legal woes. Political adversaries seek to lay charges of human rights violations in his lap.

Last November, Mexican human rights activists — bearing a petition with more than 23,000 signatures — traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate whether Calderon could be tried on war crimes charges stemming from his fight against organized crime. The court's top prosecutor said it would "make a decision in due course."

"People like Calderon are a lot more nervous than they used to be. There's a lot more scrutiny. You have the trend toward global justice, and you never know what's going to happen once you leave office," said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research center in Washington.

Shifter said leaders in Latin America today faced a difficult balancing act of maintaining public order while ensuring that human rights were respected.

Former Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castaneda wrote earlier this month that Calderon is likely to feel safer abroad: "The rumor in Mexico is that Calderon wants a United Nations post in New York dealing with climate change after he leaves the presidency."

Novelist Rene Aviles Fabila chimed in with his own hearsay: "The first lady is looking at possibilities in the United States but doesn't disdain Spain."

Calderon may not even be able to count on his National Action Party to offer him much post-presidential support. His favored candidate for the presidential elections July 1, Ernesto Cordero, trails badly and is unlikely to become the party's nominee.

Even if Calderon goes abroad, he may not rest easily, given what's happened to a high-profile predecessor.

Last September, anonymous plaintiffs filed a federal human-rights lawsuit in Connecticut — seeking more than $10 million in damages — against Ernesto Zedillo, who governed Mexico from 1994 to 2000. The plaintiffs charged that Zedillo played a role in the formation of a paramilitary group that massacred 45 people in 1997 in Acteal, in the southern state of Chiapas.

Zedillo was traveling Tuesday and unavailable for comment, his office said. He told the Yale Daily News in September that the allegations "are totally groundless and obviously false."

Supporters contend that the charges are politically motivated and are exacting heavy legal bills for Zedillo, who trots the globe as a leading voice on globalization. He's served in U.N. posts, sits on the board of the powerful World Economic Forum and heads the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Zedillo's legal plight contrasts with that of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who led the country from 1988 to 1994 and whom many Mexicans vilify as a corrupt scoundrel. Salinas, whose brother was accused of arranging a political assassination and laundering tens of millions of dollars for drug traffickers, travels with ease between homes in Mexico and Europe.

The issue of the Calderon government's human rights record intensified this week with a bitter dispute over whether the armed forces police themselves in cases of alleged abuse.

In its latest annual report, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch reiterated charges that the Mexican military is guilty of killings, torture and disappearances.

"We have figures that show that violence has increased horrifically in Mexico in recent years and that there is no system to judge the military in a way where there is justice," Emma Daly, a spokeswoman for the group, said in Cairo, where it issued the report.

The Mexican Defense Ministry responded that its soldiers have "fulfilled precise instructions" from the president to respect human rights and the law.

For its part, the Cabinet-level Interior Secretariat issued its own statement saying that of 6,065 complaints against soldiers for abuse since Calderon took office, only 98 cases have merited internal military review, leading to 29 sentences against soldiers.

Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said Tuesday that the government maintained an attitude of "closeness, respect, openness and dialogue" with Human Rights Watch.


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