HR Activists in Mexico Speak of Dangers

Emilio Godoy

HAVANA TIMES, July 8 (IPS) — Reports of extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, kidnappings and assaults are some of the heavy baggage that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is taking home from Mexico.

Pillay, who ended an official visit here Friday, met over the past week with human rights defenders and senior government officials, including conservative President Felipe Calderón, to gather information on the human rights situation in this Latin American country.

“We have no guarantees for carrying out our work,” Gabriela Morales, a lawyer with the Centre for Migrant Human Rights (CDHM), told IPS. “The issue of human rights defenders has to be put on the table.”

In late June, the CDHM closed down its Mexican Northern Border Initiative due to threats and intimidation. The Initiative ran several shelters in border areas, providing assistance to Central American migrants attempting to reach the United States and to Mexicans deported from that country.

What happened to the Initiative, which had shelters in the border cities of Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, Agua Prieta and Ciudad Juárez, is another illustration of the dangerous nature of the work of human rights defenders, who are threatened and harassed by both organized crime groups and government agents.

Since 2005, 27 activists have been killed, according to the governmental National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). Along with journalists, activists working on behalf of the rights of Central American migrants, who are frequent targets of youth gangs, organized crime groups and corrupt authorities, and the rights of indigenous people, who suffer heavy discrimination and poverty, have been caught up in the spiral of violence in Mexico.

So far this year there have been at least seven cases of assault on migrant rights activists, compared to two cases between October 2009 and October 2010, according to human rights groups.

Since 2000, 73 reporters have been killed, and 12 are still missing, according to the CNDH – making Mexico the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists.

“A large number of attacks committed by agents of the state have not been investigated, because there is complete impunity,” Juan Gutiérrez, director of the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), told IPS. The activist met this week with Pillay, a South African judge who was appointed U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in July 2008.

After taking office in December 2006, Calderón dispatched military troops to fight the powerful drug cartels disputing the smuggling routes to the lucrative U.S. market. Since he declared his “war on drugs”, more than 40,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence, according to government figures.

Over 45,000 soldiers are now involved in the fight against the cartels, which has claimed the lives of 263 military troops and 409 police officers.

The anti-narcotics strategy has led to an increase in human rights abuses complain NGOs, which have unsuccessfully called for a shift in focus.

The CNDH has received 5,055 complaints against the defense ministry for abuses committed since 2006.

Pillay, whose visit began Monday Jul. 4, said during her meeting with Calderón Wednesday that she was concerned about the growing reports of human rights violations blamed on agents of the state in the fight against organized crime.

“In the last few years, the situation of human rights in Mexico has gotten much worse,” says a report handed over to Pillay by the “All Rights For All” National Civil Human Rights Organizations Network, made up of 72 local groups.

“Although legislative advances have been made in bringing national laws into line with international treaties, these have not been accompanied by a public policy with a human rights perspective and adequate budget making human rights a priority,” it adds.

In June, Congress passed reforms of 11 articles of the constitution stipulating that the state has the obligation to promote, respect, protect and guarantee human rights and prevent, investigate, punish and make reparations for human rights abuses.

The Calderón administration made use of Pillay’s visit to decree a mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders, which includes the granting of precautionary measures for activists at risk. But human rights groups say it is just a sop.

When the threats started, “we asked for protective measures, to no avail,” said Morales.

One of the biggest concerns regarding the military fight against the drug trade is Mexico’s military justice code, which dates back to 1933. Under the code, all crimes committed by active-duty soldiers are tried in military courts.

Although three Inter-American Court of Human Rights verdicts have ordered Mexico to reform the military justice code, Congress has not yet begun to debate a bill introduced to that effect by Calderón in late 2010.

“There has been complete non-compliance with the sentences,” said Gutiérrez. “There is no political will to move forward; we are not aware of any investigations or convictions in the last six years” for cases of torture or abuse by the armed forces, he added.

According to the defense ministry, a total of 159 members of the armed forces are under investigation by the military courts for abuse of authority, torture or murder, another 57 are facing prosecution and seven have been sentenced.

Human rights groups are pushing for approval of a law that would provide reparations for victims, a measure that was also mentioned by Pillay, who said she was particularly concerned about compliance with victims’ rights with regard to security, justice and reparations.

“The frequency of human rights violations and the degree of non-compliance is alarming,” says the report by the “All Rights for All” National Civil Human Rights Organizations Network. “The Mexican state has not shown concrete evidence that it is implementing a serious human rights policy.”