The arrest of former federal security chief Miguel Nazar Haro yesterday to face charges for past human rights abuses is a breakthrough for justice in Mexico, Human Rights Watch said today.

Federal authorities arrested Nazar Haro in Mexico City to face charges for his alleged participation in the 1975 forced disappearance of Jesús Piedra Ibarra, a member of a leftist guerrilla organization. It is the first arrest obtained by the special prosecutor that Mexican President Vicente Fox appointed in November 2001 to investigate and prosecute human rights violations committed under previous governments. A federal judge must now determine whether the case will go to trial.

"This arrest marks an important break from three decades of impunity for some of the worst human rights violations in Mexico," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "After two years of investigating these crimes, the special prosecutor is a step closer to actually prosecuting one of them."

The arrest came three months after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in November that overturned a federal judge's decision to reject the request by the special prosecutor, Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, for arrest warrants against Nazar Haro and other former officials. A unanimous court disagreed with the judge's contention that the time allotted by the statute of limitations for the crime had expired.

Instead, the Supreme Court found that the statute of limitations on abduction does not begin to run if the victim's body remains missing. The ruling opened the possibility for the prosecution of former officials allegedly implicated in the kidnapping of leftist activists in the 1970s.

Nazar Haro had been at large since last December when a judge issued the arrest warrant. Two other suspects in the case, Luis de la Barreda Moreno and Juventino Romero Cisneros, remain at large.

The Fox administration has repeatedly expressed its commitment to end the climate of impunity that allowed egregious human rights violations to go unpunished in Mexico.

In July, Human Rights Watch released a report, "Justice in Jeopardy," that showed how the functioning of the Special Prosecutor's Office has been seriously undermined by a lack of resources, limited access to declassified documents, and a lack of cooperation by the military. Since the report's release, some of these shortcomings have been addressed.

Human Rights Watch notes that further steps are needed to shore up the work of the Special Prosecutor's Office. In particular, the Fox administration should instruct the military and other state institutions to collaborate more actively with the special prosecutor by turning over information relevant to the investigation. The authorities should also redouble their efforts to arrest the other suspects in this case.

"Much still needs to be done in order for President Fox's most important justice initiative to achieve meaningful results," said Vivanco. "The good news is that the special prosecutor appears to finally be making headway."