(Washington) - Human Rights Watch today applauded the decision of Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda to authorize the extradition to Spain of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo.

Cavallo, a former military official from Argentina implicated in atrocities committed during that country's seven-year military dictatorship, faces prosecution for torture, genocide and terrorism in a case under the jurisdiction of Spanish Judge Balthazar Garzón, known for his prosecution of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"The Foreign Minister's decision is an extraordinary step toward accountability for human rights abuses," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "It also signals a dramatic change in Mexican foreign policy. By playing an active role in international efforts to prosecute atrocities, Mexico is making history."

The foreign minister's extradition decision is based on a January 12 Mexican judicial ruling that set out the legal basis for extradition. The present decision is, however, even broader than the earlier court decision, which had authorized Cavallo's prosecution for genocide and terrorism, but not torture.

Cavallo is now expected to file a legal challenge, known as "amparo," to the decision in the Mexican courts.

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 irregularities of the Italian courts.) Cavallo was arrested in Cancun last August, as he attempted to catch a plane to Buenos Aires. Before his arrest, he 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, and it notes 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 protected by the country's amnesty laws, while pardons issued by then-President Menem in 1989 and 1990 freed those who had been convicted.

In the view of Human Rights Watch, the Cavallo prosecution extends the precedent set by the arrest of General Pinochet in London in 1998.

"The world is moving toward increasing international cooperation to prosecute crimes against humanity, no matter where they are committed," said Vivanco. "We're very pleased that Mexico is joining that trend."