By Clay Boggs and Maureen Meyer
On December 6, students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ School in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero announced that the remains of Alexander Mora Venancio had been identified. Alexander, along with 42 other students, disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero on September 26, 2014 at the hands of municipal police who were working on behalf of the local mayor, and who then handed the students over to a criminal group. The identification of Alexander’s remains came after over two months of an investigation into the students’ whereabouts; during this time numerous mass graves were discovered in the area. The whereabouts of the other 42 students remain unknown. This tragic case and the inability of the Mexican government to provide their families and Mexican society with prompt and clear information about the students’ whereabouts have unleashed a wave of massive protests in the country.
The enforced disappearance of the students has also refocused attention on the failure of the Peña Nieto administration to effectively combat the organized crime, corruption, and violence that have plagued Mexico in recent years, and serves as a painful reminder of the Mexican government’s failure to make real progress on human rights issues in the country. While the first two years of the Peña Nieto administration have seen important steps to restrict military jurisdiction in cases of human rights violations committed against civilians, and some limited progress in a few emblematic human rights cases, there are still glaring problems in a range of areas including torture, disappearances, unlawful killings, attacks against migrants in transit, and the protection of human rights defenders and journalists, which are described in more detail below.
Underlying all of these issues is impunity; the Mexican government has failed to effectively investigate and sanction officials who commit human rights violations. In his November 27 speech, “For a peaceful Mexico with justice and development,” President Peña Nieto affirmed that he would “take full responsibility to lead all necessary efforts to free Mexico from criminality and to fight corruption and impunity.” The president must now turn these words into actions. The important legal reforms to protect human rights that have been passed in recent years will fail to change the situation on the ground unless more is done to combat impunity in Mexico.
Torture continues to be widely used by diverse authorities throughout Mexico, including the military and federal, state, and municipal police and prosecutorial agents, principally as a means of obtaining confessions. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, recently visited Mexico and found that the practice of torture is “generalized.” Furthermore, in its 2013 Report on Human Rights Practices for Mexico, the U.S. State Department recognized the ongoing and pervasive use of torture to obtain confessions and cited cases of arbitrary detention that led to torture and forced confessions. Disturbingly, this pattern of abuse has continued even in those states that have most fully adopted Mexico’s new adversarial criminal justice system, which contains provisions meant to eliminate the use of evidence obtained through torture.
As with other human rights violations, perpetrators of torture are rarely investigated. During his visit to Mexico, Special Rapporteur Méndez voiced concern about the lack of investigations into those responsible for torture and “the near-total absence, at both the federal and state levels, of convictions.” According to the Federal Judicial Council, between 2005 and 2013 there were only seven federal convictions for torture.
The most recent data available in the Mexican government’s National Registry of Missing and Disappeared Persons cites 22,610 disappeared Mexicans since 2007. The current year looks to be the worst year for disappearances since at least 2007, with 5,098 reported between January and October. Since the students’ enforced disappearance in September, the families of 375 other individuals have come forward to denounce the disappearance of their loved ones in the same region of the state of Guerrero.
As is evident with the case of the students, Mexican authorities have no effective measures to search for the disappeared who may still be alive; instead, most efforts appear to be focused on identifying disappeared individuals amongst the dead, including in the more than 1,200 mass graves that have been found in the country since 2006. This has left families of the victims with few options but to conduct their own investigations, often at great personal risk.
In May 2013, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) created the Specialized Unit to Search for Disappeared Persons (Unidad Especializada de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas, UEBPD). But this unit has produced scant results: Between 2013 and May 2014 it had located fewer than 100 missing persons, 55 of them living, and 38 deceased. Rather than strengthening this unit by providing it with the personnel and resources needed, the Mexican government’s 2015 budget will actually cut funds the UEBPD by 63 percent. In his recent speech on addressing rule of law in the country, President Peña Nieto announced the creation of a National System to Search for Missing Persons, similar to the National Plan to Search for Missing Persons announced this past July, which has yet to be effective.
Before the 43 students from Ayotzinapa were forcibly disappeared, municipal police in Iguala opened fire on the buses that the students were traveling in. In the violent events the evening of September 26, three students and three other individuals were killed, and over 20 students were injured. This excessive use of force by Mexican security forces is not an isolated incident. Almost three years prior, federal and state police had opened fire on Ayotzinapa student protestors, killing two students.
The Mexican military has also been involved in multiple cases of unlawful killings, the most recent being in June 2014 when soldiers killed 22 people in an abandoned warehouse in Tlatlaya, the State of Mexico. The Army and the government of the State of Mexico originally maintained that the killing was the result of a shootout between soldiers and civilians and discounted any wrongdoing on the part of the soldiers. However, the federal government was forced to open an investigation into the incident three months later, when witnesses came forward and investigative reporting revealed that at least some of the civilians were unarmed when they were shot. In September, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) determined that at least 12 of the individuals, including a 15-year-old girl, were killed execution-style and that the soldiers had altered the scene of the crime, moving the bodies in an attempt to make it look like there had been a confrontation.
The Federal Attorney General’s Office has charged seven soldiers for “aggravated homicide” and “altering the crime scene;” a lieutenant is also being charged for his role in covering up the crime. The fact that this case is being tried in the civilian justice system is undoubtedly a positive sign, but the original cover up of the case by the Army, and the delay in the federal investigation, are troubling. On November 6, the Ministry of Defense accepted the recommendation CNDH issued on this case, but not without stating that it does not agree with some of its findings.
Migrants in transit
Media reports about the dangers faced by migrants crossing through Mexico have highlighted the pervasiveness of crimes against migrants, such as kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault, which are perpetrated by criminal groups such as the Zetas. However, the collusion of Mexican authorities is also common, as the 2014 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on the human rights of migrants in Mexico highlights, “Migrant abduction, human trafficking, and the smuggling of migrants in an irregular situation is such a lucrative business that many of these crimes and human rights violations are the product of collusion between various public officials and criminal organizations.”
In a 2013 survey of migrants in transit conducted by several migrant shelters in collaboration with the Jesuit Migration Service, 18 percent of those surveyed (167 out of a total of 931) reported being victims of crime at the hands of Mexican authorities. The Federal Police were responsible for the highest number of cases of abuse (59), with 31 of the incidents involving extortion and 16 others involving theft.
In addition to these abuses, migrants in transit are also victims of human rights violations at the hands of Mexican authorities. This was the case for Angel Amilcar, a Honduran migrant who was arrested by police in Tijuana in 2009 during a raid of the safe house where he was staying, then tortured by Federal Police and soldiers and forced to sign a self-incriminating confession. He spent five years in jail in pre-trial detention prison until he was unconditionally released in October 2014 when the Federal Attorney General’s Office dropped the charges against him. Angel’s case is not an isolated incident. In the first half of 2013, the staff at the migrant shelter in Saltillo, Coahuila documented 30 incidents of torture of migrants committed by Saltillo’s Municipal Preventative Police (Policía Preventiva Municipal de Saltillo).
Mexico’s immigration agency (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) has also been guilty of criminal and abusive practices against migrants. A 2013 assessment by the Mexican think tank Insyde (Instituto para la Seguridad y la Democracia) found profound institutional weaknesses in the INM that lead to persistent patterns of abuses and criminality within the agency. For example, a 2013 investigation by the special prosecutor for violence against women and human trafficking (Fiscalía Especial para los Delitos de Violencia contra las Mujeres y la Trata de Personas) implicated INM agents in a ring of human trafficking; in the same year, the CNDH received 454 complaints of human rights violations by INM officials.
Attacks against human rights defenders and journalists
Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights defenders. The Mexican chapter of the international organization Article 19 documented 157 attacks against members of the media in the first six months of 2014. In a report on the situation of human rights defenders in Mexico, the National Network of Human Rights Organizations “All rights for all” documented 104 cases of attacks against human rights defenders between 2011 and 2013, including 27 murders. On November 23, 2014, two human rights defenders who provided humanitarian assistance to migrants in transit were murdered in the State of Mexico; this horrible crime comes months after both defenders stopped an attempt to kidnap migrants along the train tracks in the area.
In light of these ongoing attacks and threats, and in response to the pressure from civil society organizations, the Mexican government established the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in 2012. More than two years after its creation, the Mechanism continues to face challenges that hinder its ability to effectively protect vulnerable journalists and human rights defenders. The staff made available to the Mechanism has so far been insufficient to provide for timely and effective responses to requests for protection. Even when journalists and human rights defenders do obtain protective measures through the Mechanism, they are often ineffective and only partially implemented. In several cases where defenders have requested urgent police assistance, the authorities fail to appear or the response is delayed for hours. Finally, and most importantly, there has been negligible progress in actually investigating the threats against defenders and journalists, rendering the benefits of any protective measures a temporary solution at best.
Addressing the crisis in Mexico
In the wake of the students’ enforced disappearance and massive public outrage at the failure of the Mexican government to provide justice for victims of crimes and human rights violations, the Peña Nieto administration is at a crossroads. The government clearly needs to address deep-seated issues of corruption and organized crime. At the same time, recent incidents, such as the students’ enforced disappearance and the killing of 22 civilians by Mexican soldiers, have made it clear that recently enacted legal reforms for the protection of human rights, while important, do not come close to addressing the severe human rights crisis that Mexico faces. In order to do so, the government urgently needs to work to put an end to impunity by strengthening internal and external accountability mechanisms in order to investigate and sanction officials who engage in crimes and abuses. It also needs to fully implement the reforms to the criminal justice system to ensure efficient investigations and the adequate collection and preservation of evidence, while respecting due process guarantees. In addition, the Mexican government should strengthen the institutions it has created, such as the Specialized Unit to Search for Disappeared Persons, the recently announced National System to Search for Missing Persons, and the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. These are significant and difficult tasks but their undertaking is urgently needed in order to make respect for human rights a reality in Mexico.