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Thursday, 31 January 2013

Mexico’s human rights reputation takes another hit

The revolution has yet to be perfected

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is again warning that human rights violations by Mexican security forces, particularly the Army, continue to occur and remain unpunished.

“Mexican security forces have committed widespread human rights violations in efforts to combat powerful organized crime groups, including killings, disappearances, and torture. Almost none of these abuses are adequately investigated, exacerbating a climate of violence and impunity in many parts of the country,” said the international organization in its just-published World Report 2013.


It further states that:

“Mexican security forces have committed widespread human rights violations in efforts to combat powerful organized crime groups, including killings, disappearances, and torture. Almost none of these abuses are adequately investigated, exacerbating a climate of violence and impunity in many parts of the country.”

The report acknowledged as “historic” the August, 2012, Supreme Court ruling that the use of a military jurisdiction to prosecute a human rights violation was unconstitutional. However, it points out that “most abuses by military personnel continue to be prosecuted in military courts, which lack independence and impartiality.”

It also references legislation passed in April, 2012, that was intended to create a protective mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists. But it argues that progress has been slow, and that “protocols to evaluate risk and assign protection are still being designed.”

Soon after former PAN president Felipe Calderon declared a “war on drugs” at the beginning of his six year term (2006-2012), it became apparent that local and even state law enforcement were not up to the job. To solve the problem, he called in the army. Though the armed forces, particularly the country’s equivalent of the US Marines, are widely respected within Mexico, HRW argues that they are a menace as a tool of law enforcement, having “committed grave human rights violations”.

To back up its argument HRW reference Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission, which has issued detailed reports for the period January 2007 to mid-November 2012 of  “109 cases in which it found that members of the army had committed serious human rights violations, and received complaints of 7,350 military abuses.”

As in other parts of the world, Mexican soldiers are not trained in law enforcement and evidence collection, and their masters are not comfortable with scrutiny.

“One of the main reasons military abuses persist is because the soldiers who commit them are virtually never brought to justice,” says the HRW report. “This occurs largely because such cases continue to be investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system. The military prosecutor’s office opened nearly 5,000 investigations into human rights violations by soldiers against civilians from January 2007 to April 24 2012, during which time military judges sentenced only 38 military personnel for human rights violations.”

As well, the Mexican security forces continue to employ practices that can only be described as medieval, with HRW saying that “common tactics include beatings, asphyxiation, waterboarding, electric shocks, sexual torture, and death threats.”

As awful as these accusations are, it is important to call out the HRW observation that they are common. The report says that torture remains widespread for obtaining forced confessions and extracting information about organized crime. The practice is reinforced by the fact that “some judges continue to accept confessions obtained through torture and ill-treatment, despite the fact the constitution prohibits the admission of such statements.”

The challenge is that, should Mexico actually enforce its own laws, the judicial system, such as it is, might collapse. However, demanding that the military, law enforcement, and the judiciary aim for the highest standards would seem of critical importance. After all, letting them get away with extreme abuses of power, such as the Florence Cassez “arrest”, is not only immoral, it also brings the entire system into disrepute.

As it is, HRW points out that only two federal officials in Mexico have been sentenced for torture since 1994, even though the Human Rights Commission “received more than 100 complaints of torture and over 4,700 complaints of ill-treatment from 2007 to 2011”. 

Mexico embarked on the long road to an adversarial criminal justice system with oral trials back in 2008, but has made little progress. In fact, “the few states where the new system has been introduced have passed significant counter-reforms or inserted exceptions that undercut the key modifications of the oral system.” All of this is further complicated by high levels of corruption, inadequate training and resources, and the complicity of prosecutors and public defenders.

And the prisons? Not only are they “overpopulated, unhygienic, and fail to provide basic security for most inmates,” HRW also notes that Mexico’s own Human Rights Commission believes that “approximately 60 percent of prisons are under the control of organized crime”. As a result, “criminal groups use their control to extort the families of prisoners, threatening to torture inmates if they do not pay.”

Journalists face long odds trying to shed light on these problems. The report says that from 2000 to July 2012, 82 journalists were killed in Mexico and 16 more disappeared. And there were more than 630 reported attacks on the press from 2006 through mid-2012 – yet the special prosecutor has obtained only one criminal sentence.

(TE Wilson is the author of Mezcalero, a Detective Sánchez novel.)




Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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