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Complaints of human rights abuses by Mexico's armed forces have soared from 367 in 2007 to 1,626 in 2011-with some 500 reported this year. (Photo: Mexico's Defense Secretariat)
Monday, September 10, 2012

Mexico & Human Rights

How well is Mexico protecting human rights?


Inter-American Dialogue 

A Mexican court declared on Aug. 22 that soldiers who are accused of committing crimes against civilians cannot be tried in a military court, a victory for advocates who say that human rights violations are increasing under the country's prolonged drug war. Does the ruling strike a better balance between human rights and the need for improved security? Have major reforms to Mexico's federal and local police forces that have been implemented in the Calderón administration achieved the expected results? Will Enrique Peña Nieto offer new solutions or strategies for combating violent criminal groups without violating citizen's rights? What kind of security reforms or tactics should the next government undertake?  

Jon French, director of security consulting firm Problem Solvers Group in Mexico City:
"More relevant to advancing human rights, security and ultimately the rule of law in Mexico is the progress toward modernization of the Mexican judicial system. Mexicans were genuinely shocked at how antiquated and unjust their current system of justice is as a result of the hit 2011 movie, 'Presumed Guilty,' which exposed the country's Napoleonic Code-based judicial system that presumes a suspect guilty until he can prove his innocence. Flying under the radar of an albeit partial achievement of the Calderón administration is reform of this judicial system. In 2008, a law obligated the judicial system at both the federal and state levels to modernize, most prominently with public oral trials and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The law imposed a 2015 deadline for its full implementation, but progress has been slow despite U.S. AID assistance for training Mexican judges, prosecutors, public defenders and criminal police investigators. Unfortunately, there has been foot-dragging and procrastination in implementing this law by vested interests in the status quo, including corrupt politicians and their collaborators who have profited by the impunity enjoyed by all criminals, not just the narcotics traffickers. Ironically, the two states most recently beset by violence, Baja California and Chihuahua, have been the most prominent in implementing the reform at the state level. Most Mexicans are actually somewhat familiar with a modern judicial system thanks to the syndication into Mexico of popular U.S. television programs like 'Law and Order' and 'CSI Miami', and are supportive of this reform. It remains to be seen whether the Peña Nieto administration will be proactive in the expeditious and effective implementation of this important reform.

George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William and Mary in WIlliamsburg, Va: Winston Churchill's depiction of Russia-'a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma'-applies to Mexico's judiciary. The Supreme Court (SCJN) declared unconstitutional the Military Code's Article 57 II (a), which justifies transferring all cases, including those involving civilians, to Kafkaesque military tribunals. Still, a precedent will only crystallize when the politically sensitive SCJN rules the same way in five separate instances. Defense Secretary Guillermo Galván, who embraces the status quo on jurisdiction, has admitted 'errors' and allowed troops to accept sensitivity training by the National Human Rights Commission. The organization indicates that complaints have soared from 367 in 2007 to 1,626 in 2011-with some 500 reported this year. Even though five generals languish in the Altiplano high-security prison, only 38 service members have been convicted and sentenced. Still, the Army has muscular friends to fend off changes, including hard-line ex-Hidalgo Gov. Jesús Murillo Karam, a top deputy and ally of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto, and über-politician Manlio Fabio Beltrones, who coordinates the PRI's 207 deputies. Complications also spring from Gen. Tomás Ángeles Dauahare's presence in the Altiplano slammer. Veterans' groups insist that the Defense Ministry's ex-number-two is the target of revenge by Galván with whom he bitterly clashed. Foes of Gen. Augusto Moisés García Ochoa, a progressive contender to take the reins from Galván, may be conniving to undermine his chances by stressing his ties to Ángeles. Meanwhile, the move from the Napoleonic Code to an adversarial civil procedure is proceeding slower than rush-hour traffic on Reforma. As Churchill said: 'However beautiful the strategy, you should once look at the results.'

Alejandro Anaya Muñoz, professor-researcher at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE):
The ruling is very important and does contribute toward balancing security objectives and human rights concerns. However, the Supreme Court has to adopt five similar rulings in order for it to establish binding jurisprudence. In any case, even if such jurisprudence is adopted or if article 57 of the Code of Military Justice is reformed to definitively establish that cases of human rights violations have to be investigated and prosecuted through the civil system, the challenges for human rights advocates will remain enormous. Particularly because even if the civil system of criminal justice is more transparent and accessible to the victims and their defenders than the military system, it remains highly inefficient and resistant to prosecuting members of the security forces for presumed violations of human rights. Thus, the transfer of cases to the civil system is favorable from a human rights perspective, but it is not an ultimate or definitive solution. A meaningful change in human rights terms would come from strengthening the capacities of civil society advocates to successfully litigate cases and from a radical transformation in the practices of the federal attorney general's office and the federal courts. In this latter sense, what is deeply needed in Mexico are prosecutors and judges that are willing and able to prosecute members of the security forces for violations of human rights that they perpetrate.

Maria Velez de Berliner, president of Latin Intelligence Corporation: "Violations of human rights by the military and the forces of law and order have been endemic in Mexico for years. The privatization and personalization of justice are part of the country's history, steeped as it is in summary executions, torture, assassinations, mass murders and violations by agents of the government of the time. Add to this the structural weaknesses of the judicial system through corruption and collusion, and it is easy to understand why the reforms under Calderón are a good public relations campaign that failed to resolve the central issue: impunity, which deprives victims of fair and impartial justice and is central to human rights violations in Mexico. I doubt Peña Nieto can combat the well-entrenched and protected criminality that afflicts Mexico today while protecting human rights. To achieve this, his government will have to eliminate the corruption represented by bribery, which is intrinsic to Mexico's ethos. Cultural change of this magnitude requires years of profound social transformation and political will. In order to get legislation through Congress, Peña Nieto will have to make compromises with lawmakers that will preclude him from also fighting corruption. Of the proposed reforms to eliminate violence and counter criminality, the creation of special forces that would report to the president promises to be the least likely to lead to fair justice and legal protections. As much as the Mexicans dislike being compared to Colombia, the government-sponsored militia approach taken by Colombia to combat the cartels (Convivir and the AUC), and the militia's violations of human rights, is not what Mexico needs. Such strategies and tactics will exacerbate the problems of rights violations and criminality, when the militias find it necessary, expedient or convenient to join the 'enemy' they were created to combat.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.

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