The Human Rights Situation in Mexico: 2017 First Quarter Update

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Author: Daniella Burgi-Palomino

Mexico is starting off 2017 with very limited progress in addressing the situation of human rights violations and elevated levels of violence across the country, especially for human rights defenders and journalists. March 2017 marked the highest level of homicides for any month since June 2011 and the entire first quarter of 2017 had higher levels of homicides than the beginning of any year in two decades. The following is a brief update on the situation for human rights defenders and journalists and the government’s efforts to address enforced disappearances, torture, and the role of the military in security operations in Mexico.

Elevated Violence Against Human Rights Defenders and Journalists
The situation for human rights defenders remains dire in Mexico at the beginning of 2017 as they continue to be subject to violence by state and non-state actors. Vulnerable groups include journalists, as well as LGBTI, religious, environmental, indigenous, migrant, and women’s rights defenders. In a trip to Mexico in January 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders confirmed that defenders continue to be criminalized for their work, receive threats via the internet and social media, including attempts to defame their identity and role, and frequently experience arbitrary arrests and abuse of use of force by law enforcement in peaceful protests. They also face limitations in access to information.

The situation of violence against journalists in particular has escalated. There have already been five journalists killed through the beginning of May 2017 in the states of Veracruz, Guerrero, Baja California, Morelos, and Chihuahua. The modus operandi of the killings is roughly the same—the journalists are shot by gunmen in the midst of their daily activities. Often those targeted cover issues such as crime and politics at a local level. The violence has forced a news outlet in the border city of Juarez to close indefinitely. In response to these killings, civil society groups have called for immediate investigations through the federal Attorney General’s (AG) office, the state level AG offices, and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE). They have also renewed calls to improve early warning systems in the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Last year, the NGO Article 19 stated that 99 percent of crimes against journalists go unpunished despite all of these mechanisms.

The United Nations and civil society organizations have called on the Mexican government to provide more resources to the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, to implement risk analyses, expand preventative measures in more states, and improve protection measures, including from a gender lens. There is also a need for the mechanism to strengthen coordination with the federal and state-level Attorney General offices to improve the investigation of crimes.

Disappearance Law Moves on from Senate, but with Reservations from Victims’ Families
After two years of debate within the Mexican Congress, a General Law on Disappearances recently passed the Mexican Senate, which is the furthest it has ever moved forward. The bill currently is being debated in the Chamber of Representatives and could either be passed in an extraordinary session in the coming weeks, delayed until the following legislative session in September, or return to the Senate with changes for another round of debates. Though there were some hesitations with the latest version of the bill, many associations of family members of disappeared persons, and other civil society groups, are urging Mexican lawmakers to move the bill forward as soon as possible.

The United Nations Office for Human Rights in Mexico and the national movement of family member collectives highlighted the weakest part of the bill as the design and function of the National Search Commission. They both highlighted that its role is overall weak—there is a lack of clarity in the bill in how it would operate both at the national and state level and in how it would coordinate with federal and local authorities and family members to search for the disappeared. The National Campaign against Forced Disappearance did not support the bill because of this issue as well as the government’s insistence in including the term “missing person” alongside disappeared persons, a lack of focus on chain of command responsibility, and absence of any provisions on independent forensic authorities. The movement of family members stated that the proposed law’s success would depend on the Search Commission’s capacity to deliver concrete results.

The UN Office highlighted some of the positive aspects of the bill, including that it defines the crime of enforced disappearance according to international standards and that it defines appropriate prison sentences for the crime. In addition, the UN Office noted the creation of a registry of the disappeared, the deceased, and the graves found and reparations to victims.

Since the beginning of the year, the discoveries of several mass graves highlight the widespread nature of disappearances across the country and the government’s continued challenges in searching for and exhuming bodies, identifying them, and returning them to family members. Family members of the disappeared continue to lead the search process with little support from authorities. More than 300 skulls were found in the state of Veracruz in the month of March alone, following efforts by a collective of family members to point authorities to this site. Family members face threats in doing this work, even the few that are protected by the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

As of March 2017, the Mexican government counted 30,942 disappeared persons in Mexico, up from 26,128 at the end of 2016. Civil society considers the actual number of disappeared persons in Mexico to be much higher due to the lack of reliable government figures.

As well as fully establishing the National Search Commission in the eventual implementation of a General Law, the government will also need to focus on increasing the number of convictions for disappearances, including those committed by government officials and law enforcement. Recently, civil society organizations have been demanding that the former Governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte be charged with disappearances as well as corruption charges. According to the National Human Rights Commission, there were only two court convictions at the state level and six at the federal level for disappearances between 2013 and 2015.

Lack of Progress on Disappeared Students’ Case—Five Months before Three-year Anniversary
Incidents from the beginning of this year show that the Mexican government continues to cover up the truth around the case of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students. In February 2017, the government rejected a previous report that had outlined the involvement of government officials in misconduct and in obstructing justice by purposely leaving evidence out of the case files. The author of the original report, the inspector general within the Attorney General’s office, César Alejandro Chávez Flores, resigned shortly after presenting the report internally. His report was never released to the public and instead, a new report was shared with the families and their representatives. The new report did not include any of the wrongdoings Chávez Flores had highlighted.

The Follow-up Mechanism backed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which has operated since November 2016 to support the Mexican government in the investigation of the case, made its second visit to Mexico on April 20 and 21, 2017. The members of the Follow-up Mechanism held meetings with the families of the disappeared students at the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s school. They also met with Mexico’s new Attorney General, Raúl Cervantes, and high-level officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Attorney General’s Office, Interior Ministry, and National Human Rights Commission, representatives of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray.

Overall, the members of the IACHR Follow-up Mechanism were concerned by the lack of progress in the search for the students and the slow pace being taken in the areas of investigation identified by the Independent Group of Experts in their final report. Though the Mexican government has arrested over 100 people for the case, not one person has been prosecuted for the crime of enforced disappearance, and no new charges have been filed since December 2015. The IACHR was also concerned with recent statements by the Mexican government from March 2017 reiterating that the hypothesis on the incineration of the 43 students at the trash dump of Cocula should still be considered even though the Group of Experts and scientific studies have proven this to be impossible.

The Mexican government did share with the Follow-up Mechanism some limited progress on contracting LIDAR technology (laser search technology) in the search for the students, investigating telephone communications, and providing medical care to two of the students injured on the night of the attacks. However, the Follow-up Mechanism concluded that much more progress is needed in the next six months in expanding the search area for the missing students, creating a database of graves to be searched across the country, investigating the role of all security forces and high level government officials involved, and investigating the possibility of heroin trafficking to the United States. The next official visit of the Follow-up Mechanism to Mexico will be in July 2017. The mechanism has a mandate to continue work until it completes its objectives.

The families of the students led a sit-in outside the Attorney General’s office following a dissatisfactory meeting between them and Mexican government officials on the case and call on the government to demonstrate progress in investigating local and federal police, and other officials, the military, and following up on other lines of investigation. They also denounced not being updated on the government’s recent apprehension of one of the leaders of a cartel allegedly involved in the disappearance of the students.

Law to Prevent, Investigate and Punish Torture Awaits Presidential Review
The Mexican Congress has sent the final text of the General Law to Prevent, Investigate and Punish Torture to the president for approval in the coming weeks. Civil society was encouraged by the provisions included in this version of the bill, such as the absolute prohibition on the use of evidence obtained through torture without exceptions, and a stronger National Mechanism to Prevent Torture. Different sanctions were also considered, which would correspond to the perpetrator of the act of torture and the category of victim, with stronger punishments if government officials commit the crime and if it was committed against children, women, migrants, the elderly, the indigenous, victims of sexual abuse, or those with disabilities. While this is a positive step, the Mexican government’s implementation of the proposed law and the extent to which it makes progress in investigating and sanctioning government authorities involved in acts of torture will be crucial in addressing impunity for cases of torture. Since 2006, the Attorney General’s Office has received 4,000 complaints of torture, but only fifteen have resulted in convictions.

Attempts to Increase the Military’s Role in Security Operations without Checks for Abuses
Instead of designing a plan to gradually take the military off the streets, the Mexican government seems to be heading in the concerning direction of expanding the role of the military in public security operations, disregarding the military’s long history of human rights violations and impunity in Mexico. Recently, this effort has centered on the debate to pass an Internal Security Law.

Civil society denounced the lack of consultation with organizations in the initial discussions of the bill and remains concerned with its passing, even though it did not advance during this legislative session. Though the various versions of the bill are different, they all propose allowing the military to intervene in police investigations, lack regulations on use of force and guidelines for the armed forces in confrontations, and empower the president to take more unilateral actions with regards to the military, weakening the role of the legislative and judiciary to check the executive regarding military force. United Nations representatives and Mexico’s own National Human Rights Commission have spoken out against the draft bill. Mexican civil society organizations have called for blocking it in a campaign, #SeguridadSinGuerra (Security without War). They argue that the bill continues the model of using armed forces for public security operations and justifies that this model has been “effective” without addressing the increase in human rights violations with the militarization of public security. As the U.S. State Department itself has recognized in its human rights reports on Mexico, the Mexican military has been involved in cases of extrajudicial executions, torture, and disappearances. The execution of the twenty-two civilians by soldiers in the town of Tlatlaya in 2014 is one emblematic example of the military’s excessive use of force and possible alteration of a crime scene. Hardly any cases of violations by Mexican soldiers are investigated and sanctioned in civilian jurisdiction, and most remain in impunity. The security bill focuses entirely on the role of the armed forces and does not make any reference to ways in which the Mexican police could be reformed.

Amidst this debate, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Secretary of the Interior Osorio Chong have taken a defensive stance stating that any criticism of the military is unacceptable in several public events with members of the armed forces of Mexico. The head of Mexico’s armed forces (SEDENA), Salvador Cienfuegos, has also said that the army should continue patrolling the streets and that he is in favor of a legal framework to would allow the military to continue doing its work. Such language does nothing to hold Mexico’s armed forces accountable for abuses and appears to put the military above the law.

The passing of such a law would have very concerning implications for victims of abuses by the military and citizens across Mexico, especially in areas with high levels of violence, and could lead to an increase in human rights violations. Instead of focusing all of its efforts on passing such a law and outlawing criticisms of the military, the Mexican government should focus its efforts on investigating abuses of the military and convicting members of the military in civilian courts.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy
•    Maintain the High-Level Bilateral Dialogue on Human Rights between Mexico and the United States.
•    Continue supporting Mexico’s efforts to strengthen the rule of law, including its criminal justice system reform and full transition to an accusatorial system.
•    Support the government’s efforts to strengthen the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, including ensuring sufficient resources, improvement of coverage and preventative measures, and coordination with AG offices on the investigation of crimes against defenders and journalists.
•    Encourage Mexico to fully implement the General Laws on Disappearance and Torture, in consultation with civil society and the families of victims, and to take concrete actions on the investigations and prosecutions of these crimes, including those committed by members of the armed forces and government officials, and in emblematic cases like the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students.