Uncovering Mexico's Dirty War: The scholar Sergio Aguayo seeks the truth about his nation's history in government files and takes his quest for justice to the streets

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Sergio Aguayo revels in exploring contradictions. He is a former gang member fighting for human rights. A left-wing academic who writes books with gringos. A scathing critic of Mexican politics who has run for office -- twice. When Mr. Aguayo labels his life as "schizophrenic," he is referring to more than his maneuvers outside the conservative halls of the elite College of Mexico, where he has held the post of research professor in international relations since 1977. He sees his life as divided into two halves by one pivotal event: a contract taken out on his life by a member of a government-backed death squad in 1971, during Mexico's so-called Dirty War of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Aguayo was a member of los Vikingos, a street gang in Guadalajara, a hotbed of political strife in an era when the government killed or "disappeared" hundreds of leftist opponents. Mr. Aguayo's gang, a motley group of disaffected youths and working-class students with leftist sympathies, was locked in a violent political turf war with a gang of pro-government university students. When the Dirty War heated up in the late 1960s, many members of the rival group, the Federation of Students of Guadalajara, were recruited by the Mexican Army to join its death squads. While the squad members' job was to hunt down suspected leftist activists, they often used their power to settle personal scores.

Mr. Aguayo made the mistake of defeating one of the squad's main hit men, Carlos Morales, during a brawl. Soon after, he says, he heard through friends that the hit man wanted him dead.

The Dirty War period -- when Mr. Aguayo found trouble and fled it to start a new life -- is a central theme in his academic research. In 1997 he requested permission from several government agencies to review archives related to one of the pivotal events of that era: the October 1968 massacre of student protesters in Tlatelolco Plaza, in downtown Mexico City.

To his surprise, all but the Secretariat of Defense agreed.

"They thought we wouldn't be able to do it because the information was so disorganized," says Angeles Magdaleno, a historian who was the lead research assistant on the project.

Ms. Magdaleno describes her own surprise when an archive employee referred to the volume of papers on the subject as one kilometer of back-to-back documents. Even more daunting, since no scholar had ever been given access to the files, there was no index to the mass of papers, which successive governments had literally dumped into boxes.

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