Mexico’s federal prosecutors should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the killing of three political activists in Guerrero state, including examining allegations against government officials, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should offer robust protection for survivors of the attack and their families. 

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Investigate Potential State Involvement; Protect Witnesses
June 20, 2013

The victims feared for their lives, specifically at the hands of local officials. Federal prosecutors should intervene in order to help ensure an independent investigation that explores all possible motives for this crime.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director

(Washington, D.C.) – Mexico’s federal prosecutors should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the killing of three political activists in Guerrero state, including examining allegations against government officials, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should offer robust protection for survivors of the attack and their families.

The victims, all members of an organization that campaigns on behalf of peasant farmers and marginalized communities, were abducted along with five fellow activists on May 30, 2013. The previous day, 11 members of the organization had filed a formal complaint with the Guerrero state prosecutor’s office, expressing the fear that the mayor and the police chief of Iguala municipality might have them killed in retaliation for their activities, according to documents obtained by Human Rights Watch.

"The victims feared for their lives, specifically at the hands of local officials," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Federal prosecutors should intervene in order to help ensure an independent investigation that explores all possible motives for this crime.”

On June 3, the bodies of the three activists from the organization Unidad Popular (Common Unity, or UP) – Arturo Hernández Cardona, Félix Rafael Bandera Román, and Ángel Román Ramírez – were found on a highway. They had gone missing after blockading the highway in protest against local government policy. Two of the bodies had bullet wounds, and all bore signs of ill-treatment. One victim had injuries indicating severe torture, his family, who saw the body, told Human Rights Watch. 

The five other members of the Unidad Popular who were abducted in the same incident managed to escape, and are in hiding. One of them gave an account of the killings to a fellow activist, describing how one victim was beaten to death in front of the others after trying to escape.

Prior to the attack, the Unidad Popular had repeatedly criticized the Iguala mayor, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, over his policies on state assistance to farmers and poor communities, and had publicly accused him of corruption. The complaint filed the day before the abduction describes an escalating series of confrontations with the mayor, starting in January.  

This included a meeting on April 1 in which the mayor told a member of the group, “Now the only thing left to do is for us to look after you so that you don’t get killed, with all the problems you have,” according to the complaint, a statement that members interpreted as a threat.

In their complaint, the activists stated: “[W]e have a well-founded fear that José Luis Abarca Velázquez, mayor of Iguala, could give an order to take the lives of the leaders of the various organizations in the Unidad Popular.”

Close associates of Cardona, a prominent activist and politician, told Human Rights Watch that the group’s members had felt under threat for several weeks. They reported being followed by cars and by strangers who took photos of them. Members of the group had a meeting, lasting several hours, with the mayor and other government representatives on May 29, which one of the people in attendance described to Human Rights Watch as highly contentious.

Mayor Abarca Velázquez has issued a statement denying any link to the attack and declaring that he is available for questioning by the authorities.

More than two weeks after the bodies were found, the status of the investigation by local prosecutors is unknown. The survivors have not spoken to investigators because they do not trust the municipal or state authorities, a local activist told Human Rights Watch. The activist has himself since received a threatening call to his cell phone. Meanwhile, Cardona’s partner says that she feels she is in danger, and that the only protection she is receiving is a daily visit from state police.

The governor of Guerrero, Ángel Aguirre Rivero, has called for the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, or PGR) to take over the case. Mexico has strict legal obligations to protect the right to life that require an effective investigation, capable of leading to the identification and punishment of those responsible for the abductions and killings, Human Rights Watch said. Given the direct allegation that local officials were involved, intervention by the federal authorities would offer a greater chance of independence and effectiveness.

Previous killings of social activists in Guerrero have virtually always gone unpunished, including cases in which evidence strongly pointed to the participation of government agents. In February 2009 two indigenous rights activists, Raúl Lucas Lucía and Manuel Ponce Rosas, were found dead days after being kidnapped in Ayutla de los Libres municipality by people who allegedly identified themselves as police. Nobody has been charged with the crime.

“There can be no effective investigation of these heinous killings if the witnesses do not feel safe coming forward,” Vivanco said. “To help build their trust, federal authorities should take over the investigation without delay, and offer immediate, full protection for those who escaped the abduction and their families.”