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Mexico's oldest living ex-president turned 100, but it wasn't widely celebrated

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Mexico's oldest living, former President Luis Echeverria turned 100 yesterday. But the centenarian's birthday wasn't widely celebrated. Instead, he was remembered as an architect of Mexico's brutally repressive Dirty War. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Mexican media took much note of former President Luis Echeverria's 100th birthday.

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CARMEN ARISTEGUI: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But much of that attention, like journalist Carmen Aristegui's morning broadcast, focused on his role in some of Mexico's most painful modern moments, especially the 1968 and 1971 massacres of students and pro-democracy protesters.

ADELA CEDILLO: During more than 10 years, he was the mastermind of repression.

KAHN: And a key architect of Mexico's state terrorism machinery, says Adela Cedillo, a history professor at the University of Houston. As secretary of the interior and then president, she says Echeverria built clandestine prisons and torture chambers, ostensibly to quash a small guerrilla movement in the height of the country's decades-long Dirty War.

CEDILLO: He was really evil. I'm not supposed to do a moral judgment. But the people that they - that was disappear, the people who were exterminated, they were allegedly sympathizers of the guerrilla movements. But that's not necessarily true.

KAHN: In his 1971 presidential address to the nation, Echeverria defended his role against those he called enemies of the state. They are drug-using degenerates with bad parents, he said...

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LUIS ECHEVERRIA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: ...With a notable propensity for sexual promiscuity and homosexuality, said Echeverria. On the international scene, however, he portrayed himself as a champion of the left, welcoming refugees from South American dictatorships. But Mexican historian Enrique Krauze says the former president has never admitted any wrongdoing.

ENRIQUE KRAUZE: His motto was arriba y adelante - upward and forward. But the truth is, after six years, Mexico went downward and back.

KAHN: Echeverria plunged the country into heavy debt. After Mexico's decades-long one-party rule had ended, he was charged in 2006 with genocide and placed under house arrest. But the case was later dismissed. The last time Echeverria was seen in public was last year. He was wearing a sombrero and slumped in a wheelchair, lined up for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLOATING POINTS' "ARP3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.

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