(New York) - Human Rights Watch today applauded a Mexican judicial decision to proceed with the extradition of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, a former military official from Argentina who has been implicated in atrocities during the country's 7-year military dictatorship. If extradited, Cavallo will face prosecution under the jurisdiction of Spanish Judge Balthazar Garzón, known for his prosecution of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

With this landmark decision, Mexico becomes the first Latin American country to apply the principle of universal jurisdiction for human rights violations in an extradition context. "This is a major step forward for human rights in the region," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "This case is further proof that the Pinochet prosecution has created real momentum in favor of the criminal prosecution of egregious human rights abuses."

The fate of the extradition request now rests with the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations, Jorge Castañeda. Although the court's ruling sets out a legal basis for the extradition, Castañeda must make the ultimate decision to send Cavallo to Spain. "The foreign minister has said that Mexico would commit itself to strengthening the international human rights regime," said Vivanco. "Now is the opportunity to show that he is serious by extraditing Cavallo."

Cavallo is the second Argentine to be detained abroad for human rights crimes committed in Argentina during the country's 1976-1983 military dictatorship. (The first was retired Major Jorge Olivera, who was detained in Rome last year and then released due to mistakes made by the Italian courts.) Cavallo was arrested in Cancun last August, as he attempted to catch a plane to Buenos Aires. Until his arrest, he had lived and worked in Mexico, serving as the director of the National Registry of Motor vehicles.

According to a November 1999 indictment issued by Spanish Judge Garzón, Cavallo, known by the name of Miguel Angel Cavallo, was a Navy lieutenant who worked in the notorious Navy Mechanics School (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, ESMA) in Buenos Aires during the military regime. Between January 1977 and October 1978, the indictment states, Cavallo belonged to the operations sector of Working Group 3.3.2, a group actively involved in kidnapping and torturing persons perceived as leftist by the military. The indictment names Cavallo as a participant in the torture of Thelma Jara de Cabezas, and the execution of Mónica Jauregui and Elba Delia Aldaya.

The 1984 report of the Argentine truth commission names 8,961 people who "disappeared" under the military dictatorship, noting that this figure is not exhaustive. Although some high-level officials were criminally prosecuted in the 1980s for these abuses, the vast majority of military perpetrators were covered by the country's amnesty laws, while pardons issued by then-President Menem in 1989 and 1990 freed those who had been convicted. "The struggle for justice in Argentina has been continuing since that time," Vivanco explained. "The current prosecutions, both in Argentina and abroad, have revived hopes of seeing that justice is done."