Human Rights Situation in Mexico Remains Dire, Changes Slow in Coming

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Author: Loren Riesenfeld

According to the 2014 Human Rights Watch World Report, the human rights situation in Mexico remains dire. The report catalogued a litany of human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, abuses by military and police, coerced confessions, poor prison conditions, and obstacles to journalistic freedom.

The Peña Nieto Administration reports that since 2007 over 26,000 people have been reported missing or disappeared. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) is investigating at least 2,443 disappearances involving corrupt government officials. Prosecutors and investigators fail to properly search for missing people, and families have little recourse when their loved ones disappear. Mexico still does not have a national database of missing people or a DNA database of unidentified human remains. The Peña Nieto Administration has created an office within the Federal Prosecutor’s Office to investigate disappearances, but it has yet to make substantive progress.

 Since 2006, the Mexican government has increasingly relied on its military and paramilitary forces to combat and investigate organized crime. However, the increased reliance on heavily armed troops has led to more abuses and human rights violations. The military internally investigates and prosecutes abuses by soldiers, but there is no independent or transparent review board. Between December 2006 and mid-September 2013, there were 8,150 complaints against soldiers, over 5,600 investigations, but only 38 convictions for human rights violations.

Human rights defenders (HRDs) and other activists are harassed and threatened as a result of protesting government projects and resource extraction. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported in 2011 that Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for exercising freedom of speech, with over 66 journalists killed and 12 more disappeared. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented 89 attacks against human rights defenders between November 2010 and December 2012; none of these cases were successfully prosecuted. This level of impunity is unacceptable, and creates conditions that result in self-censorship of journalists and HRDs.

In July of 2011, President Felipe Calderon created a department within the Ministry of the Interior (Segob) to implement a protection mechanism for HRDs and journalists, and signed more expansive legislation into law in June 2012. Unfortunately, “the mechanism suffers from too few and inadequately trained staff, delays in accessing funds, coordination failures with state-level institutions, poor dissemination to those at risk, and a lack of public support from high level government officials.”

The police and military sometimes use unacceptable tactics to coerce confessions from people charged with crimes, including waterboarding, beatings, electric shocks, and sexual violence. Judges continue to accept forced confessions, and the international Istanbul Protocol for investigating torture is rarely followed.

The report notes that Mexico is in the process of transitioning to an adversarial, oral justice system from an inquisitorial, written one. Three out of 32 states have fully implemented this constitutional reform, and 13 more are currently making the transition. However, the criminal justice system fails both the victims of crimes and those accused of committing crimes. Victims and families rarely receive justice, as less than 25% of all crimes are even reported, let alone prosecuted. Those accused are left at the mercy of poorly trained and sometimes corrupt investigators, prosecutors, and judges.

The United States continues to send aid to Mexico to fight organized crime as part of the Merida Initiative, even though nearly 15% of the allocated aid money is contingent upon Mexico meeting human rights requirements.

Mexico has made progress on improving the human rights situation in the country, but there is still a ways to go. The judicial reforms of 2008 and the protection mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists represented significant steps forward. However, the Mexican government has not done an adequate job in putting these reforms into practice. The HRW 2014 World Report decries the human rights situation in Mexico, and should become an impetus for positive change.