One Year into Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's Administration

One Year into Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's Administration

Little Progress has been made on Security or Human Rights

By Maureen Meyer and Clay Boggs

When he became president, Enrique Peña Nieto said that his administration would focus on reducing violence and the crimes that most affect the general population. He also said that he would work to “transform into reality the human rights enshrined in the Constitution.” A year into Peña Nieto’s administration, those promises are still unfulfilled.

So far, the results from the Peña Nieto administration’s strategy for reducing violence and combating the crimes that most affect society have been disappointing. While there has been a slight reduction in the homicide rate, violence remains rampant in parts of the country, and kidnapping and extortion are at record-high levels. As Mexico’s National Statistics and Geography Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI) 2013 victimization survey made clear, more Mexicans feel unsafe this year than in previous years. 

Security experts have pointed to a slight increase in organized crime-related homicides for October 2013 after a drop in September, and in certain states, especially Michoacán, the security situation has continued to deteriorate. There are widespread accusations of collusion between government officials, the police, and criminal groups. Self-defense groups are clashing publicly with criminal organizations, largely because the government has been unable to stop killings, kidnappings, extortion, and other abuses against the general population.

The Peña Nieto administration has sought to distance itself from the failed strategies implemented by former President Felipe Calderón, and it has announced a greater emphasis on violence prevention, intelligence gathering, and coordination. Nonetheless, so far his administration has largely kept his predecessor’s security strategy intact, and it has produced similarly poor results. The military continues to play a lead role in public security, with the Defense Ministry (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) regularly reporting on the number of suspects detained, as well as the quantity of drugs, weapons, and vehicles seized. These numbers allow the government to claim that their efforts are producing results but indicate little about the broader impact of the strategy on violence and insecurity. In addition, while the Federal Police are taking an active role in operations to combat organized crime, the force is still plagued with widespread accusations of abuse and corruption, including the October 2013 arrest of 13 agents for participating in a kidnapping ring in Acapulco. Migrant shelters and human rights organizations have also reported multiple cases of federal police agents extorting migrants in transit through Mexico. The much-touted National Gendarmerie, which was supposed to be a key element in strengthening the federal government’s security forces, has now been scaled back to a 5,000-strong special force within the Federal Police. It will be staffed by civilians and will not be operational until July 2014.

In his first year in office, Peña Nieto has also failed to demonstrate a clear commitment to respecting the rights of Mexican citizens. While he signed landmark legislation for victims of crimes and human rights abuses shortly after assuming office, the Commission to Attend to Victims was not finalized until October, and it is not clear if it will have sufficient resources in 2014 to carry out its tasks.

Similarly, nine months after presenting its current database of missing and disappeared persons, which was riddled with inaccuracies and omissions, the Mexican government has yet to present a purged database or make clear how it is developing a comprehensive database that includes all registered cases of disappearances. While the Federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) established a unit to search for the disappeared in May, their work has been slow to produce tangible results, and the federal government has not developed clear methodology to investigate the cases. Securing investigations into cases when members of the Mexican military have been involved in enforced disappearances has been further complicated as they are investigated within military jurisdiction.

In September, the Senate began important discussions about reforming the Military Code of Justice. These reforms should ensure that human rights violations committed by members of the military against civilians are investigated and prosecuted in civilian instead of military courts. However, no date has been set for a vote, and it remains to be seen whether the final text of the legislation will comply with rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or with important decisions by Mexico’s Supreme Court on this matter. 

Human rights defenders and journalists also continue to be at risk. The Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists has made progress in recent months to become fully consolidated and appropriately funded. Nonetheless, the lack of political commitment to the Mechanism remains an obstacle. Attacks and threats continue. For example, during 2013, there have been approximately 100 acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets alone. The Committee to Protect Journalists considers Mexico the deadliest country for journalists in the Americas and one of the most dangerous in the world.

Just as importantly, recent victories for victims of human rights violations have been achieved through the tireless work of human rights organizations in Mexico, rather than through a functioning justice system. Such is the case of the Mexican Supreme Court’s recent order to release Israel Arzate, who was tortured by soldiers and falsely implicated in a 2010 mass shooting in the Villas de Salvárcar neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez. Arzate was only released after Mexican human rights organizations assumed his legal defense and worked to bring national and international attention to his case. Likewise, after spending 13 years in prison, the indigenous teacher Alberto Patishtán was pardon by Peña Nieto in October 2013, because the government found that his human rights had been seriously violated, particularly the right to due process. Unfortunately, Patishtán would not have been freed were it not for the years of campaigning for his release by his family and national and international organizations who worked to widely publicize the injustices in his case.

Human rights violations, meanwhile, continue to be widespread—between January and October 2013, the National Human Rights Commission received 1,062 complaints against the armed forces (both the Army and the Navy) and 559 against the Federal Police, including cases of unlawful killings, forced disappearance, torture, and cruel and inhumane treatment.  

During its presentation for the Universal Periodic Review before the UN Human Rights Council, the Mexican government acknowledged its failings in the area of human rights. In practice, however, it would appear that the government’s statements and good intentions have yet to result in concrete actions, such as investigating and prosecuting police and soldiers who are responsible for human rights violations. Until more progress is made to combat the impunity that prevails in Mexico, the government’s discourse on human rights concerns in the country will continue to be little more than lip service.

Photo by Aristoteles Sandoval