The Human Rights Crisis in Mexico
Dr Par Engstrom
Institute of the Americas, University College London
Remarks prepared for a panel on “The Struggle for a Better Life: A Context for Understanding the Enforced Disappearance of Rural Students in Guerrero, Mexico”
UCL Institute of the Americas, 15 October 2014
Thank you for the invitation.
I have been asked by the organisers to address the question of whether, and in what ways, the situation in Mexico, as demonstrated by the disappeared students, amounts to a human rights crisis.
Let me start with some caveats however. First, as many of you know, I am not a specialist on Mexican politics. Nor am I an international lawyer. Second, facts are as elusive as ever when it comes to the violence that characterise contemporary Mexico. But from what I can gather from news reporting there appears to be a fundamental agreement around the main facts of the events that are the focus of our discussions this evening.
This being said, I would like to contribute with four points to the conversation.
- Mexico’s human rights crisis
First point: what does Mexico’s human rights crisis consist of? Let me present some headline figures.
In terms of the central topic of today’s event: enforced disappearances, according to Human Rights Watch:
“In February 2013, Human Rights Watch published “Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored,” documenting nearly 250 “disappearances” during the administration of President Felipe Calderón, including 149 cases in which there was compelling evidence of enforced disappearances involving state agents from all branches of the country’s security forces.
Following the report’s release, the Interior Ministry acknowledged the existence of a list, compiled by the previous administration, of over 26,000 people reported disappeared or missing, and promised to examine these cases and clarify the precise scope of the problem.
In May 2014, Interior Minister Osorio Chong said that the number of people missing or disappeared had dropped to 8,000. In June, the then-deputy prosecutor for human rights in the Attorney General’s Office stated that the 8,000 number only included people who had gone missing during the Peña Nieto administration. Later that month, Osorio Chong announced at a news conference that the whereabouts of 16,000 people remained unknown. In August, the government said that the actual number of “people not found” was more than 22,000, including people who had been reported missing during both the Calderón and Peña Nieto presidencies.
The administration reports that the number of people who were reported missing during the Calderón presidency and remain missing has dropped by 17,000 (from 29,000 to 12,000), while the number for those missing since Peña Nieto took office has dropped by 13,000 (from 23,000 to 10,000). Yet the administration has not provided a list either of the people who remain missing or of those who have been found. Instead, it has merely created an online database that allows people to determine the status of specific individuals, but tells them virtually nothing about the cases themselves.”
Second, in terms of torture, Amnesty International reports:
“1. Torture and other ill-treatment is out of control in Mexico – the number of reported complaints in 2013 (1,505) was 600 per cent higher compared to 2003, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Even that increase is probably an underestimate of the true figures.
2. Between 2010 and the end of 2013 the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received more than 7,000 complaints for torture and other ill-treatment. The CNDH has seen a recent reported drop in complaints in 2014, but rates are still far higher than a decade ago.
3. Fear of torture is widespread. 64 per cent of Mexicans are scared of being tortured if taken into custody, according to a recent survey commissioned by Amnesty International.
4. Reports of torture and other ill-treatment increased as violence spiralled in Mexico after 2006, as a result of the government’s “war on drugs”.
5. Impunity for those who torture is rife. According to the Federal Judicial Council, federal courts dealt with 123 prosecutions for torture between 2005 and 2013; just seven resulted in convictions under the federal law.”
Now, behind these numbers and statistics are people as victims, perpetrators, and bystanders – and many located somewhere in between these sometimes misleading categories.
It is in this sense that Mexico could be considered to be in a human rights crisis, and has been for some time in the context of its very own “war on drugs”. And, please note that I have not even referred to the many other challenges facing Mexican society that could be characterised as human rights challenges, from entrenched socio-economic inequalities to gender violence, through to discrimination of indigenous communities, to name a few.
So what does Mexico’s human rights crisis consist of then? Put simply, as a definitional matter a crisis has at least two meanings:
First, “a time of intense difficulty or danger”, which we can perhaps all agree that Mexican society is facing, although it is important to highlight that this ‘danger’ is not evenly distributed across the country – some parts of the country, and some groups, are more affected than others.
But, there is a second form of understanding of ‘crisis’, and that is as “time when a difficult or important decision must be made”. It is not clear to me, regrettably, that when it comes to the violence that afflicts contemporary Mexican society, there is a shared understanding that it is in a crisis in this sense. I will return to this point in a moment, particularly in relation to what can be done to advance a sense of urgency and stress the need for transformational change.
- Scope of state obligations for human rights
Before turning to this more political question – ‘what is to be done’ – how can international human rights law help us make sense of where responsibility lies and who has obligations to improve the situation. Again, simply put, there are a few considerations that are relevant for the Mexican situation. I only have the time here to state them in summary form:
First, under international human rights law, states undertake to ‘ensure’ that any person whose rights are violated ‘shall have an effective remedy’, and that ‘the competent authorities shall enforce such remedies when granted’ (ICCPR, Article 2). Over time, in general terms, this state obligation has developed to include the right of victims of human rights violations, as well as their family members, to justice, reparations, and the truth.
Now, states assume obligations when formally agreeing to comply with international law, but it is governments who are responsible to ensure that these responsibilities are assumed. These responsibilities are the same regardless of what previous governments have, or have not, done. And it could be argued that when faced with the failure of a previous government to protect human rights, the responsibility of its successor becomes even greater.
Second, any federal state assuming international human rights obligations are responsible to ensure that all the constituent parts of that state are in compliance with its international obligations.
Third, under international human rights law, states have positive obligations to protect those within their jurisdiction from abuses by non-state actors. To be clear, these obligations even extend to those cases where state agents are not the direct perpetrators of abuses.
In this regard, it should be added, that based on the information available concerning the disappeared students, what is striking is the direct involvement of state agents – police officers – as well as the alleged complicity of security forces and elected local politicians in the abuses committed.
Indeed, what is so alarming with the human rights situation in Mexico is precisely the extent to which criminal groups appear to have become embedded in political institutions and the apparent intimate relationships that exist between elected politicians, state-level and local security forces, and criminal actors. According to some reports, these are relationships that make it very difficult at times and in some places to distinguish between these various groups.
- The specific crime of enforced disappearances
A third issue that I would like to raise concerns the specific human rights crime of enforced disappearances. Each act of disappearance has a name associated with it, but the main point that I would like to convey is how deeply corrosive the practice and effects of this crime are, not only for the immediate family, but also for society more generally.
Here is a definition of the crime of enforced disappearance from the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance:
“enforced disappearance” is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.
This legal definition does not capture the drama and, yes, the crisis, that a society is facing when such practices become widespread. As Amnesty International points out: “Very often, people who have disappeared are never released and their fate remains unknown. Their families and friends may never find out what has happened to them. But the person has not just vanished. Someone, somewhere, knows what has happened to them. Someone is responsible.”
It is in large part for these reasons that the crime of enforced disappearance give rises to quite specific obligations on the state to establish the truth about what happened, pursue accountability for those responsible, and seek to repair the harm done.
- What Is to Be Done? The human rights vanguard vs. micro-politics of mobilisation
Now, that is the law, or at least some provisions of the applicable international human rights law to the situation in Mexico. I have not even touched on the relevant domestic Mexican laws. A perfectly legitimate question could be: what is the practical relevance of the law?
It would be easy for me to just leave it to you to decide. But allow me at least to offer some concluding thoughts.
What I have been trying to point out is that a human rights analysis helps to identify standards against which the performance of governments, and societies, can be measured. Yes, they are, in most cases, international standards, but they gain salience through the efforts of individuals and groups to give them meaning locally. Human rights can empower in this sense, and highlight that what matters is not what governments say, but what they do.
Perhaps we can take some comfort in the fact that the disappeared students have prompted reactions by parts of Mexican society, which have mobilised in response to these violations. It is far too early to tell, of course, whether the fates of the students can become catalysts for change. Yet, if we look beyond Mexico, and to the histories of other Latin American societies, it was in many ways the desaparecidos that generated most resistance to authoritarian regimes in an earlier historical period. What we can learn from this, is that demands for the truth of what happened to loved ones are not likely to go away, and democratic governments better take note to ensure that at least they do better than their authoritarian predecessors.