Mexico: Lessons from a Human Rights Catastrophe

Mexico: Lessons from a Human Rights Catastrophe

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has inherited a human rights catastrophe involving extreme violence by organized crime, widespread abuse by the military, police, and prosecutors, and pervasive impunity for both. His predecessor, President Enrique Peña Nieto, initially tried to ignore these problems. But ongoing atrocities provoked public outrage and forced him to support reforms that could help curb abuse—if they are ever properly implemented. This series of articles examines Peña Nieto’s human rights record—what went wrong, where limited progress was made, and how the current administration can do a better job of containing the carnage and strengthening the rule of law in Mexico.

1. The Militarization of Public Security
2. Violence and Opacity
3. Torture and Historical Truth
4. Forced Disappearance, an Ongoing Crime
5. The Other Disappeared

The Other Disappeared

On January 15, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will install a “Truth and Justice Commission” to assist the families of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college who were disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014.  It was fitting—and commendable—that the decree establishing this important initiative was one of the official acts of his presidency in December.  It was also fitting that the parents of other disappeared people stood outside the ceremony demanding that his administration address their cases as well. 

Along with the help of diggers, members from the Colectivo Solecito, a group of women whose children are missing, have excavated more than 250 skulls from the site over a period of 8 months near Veracruz City, Mexico, March 23, 2018. © 2018 Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times/Redux

The disappearance of students in Iguala shocked the conscience of Mexico—and the world—in a way few atrocities in the country have before it. The impact was due to the large number of victims, the fact they were students, the police participation in their abduction, and the authorities’ inability or unwillingness to find them. But also fueling the public outrage was the fact—which became abundantly clear almost immediately—that this horrific crime was not an isolated incident. 

Far from it. Under intense pressure to find the students, the federal prosecutors’ office followed leads to clandestine graves near Iguala and, within a few weeks, exhumed 39 bodies. None were the students. The public attention to the disappearances prompted other people in Guerrero to speak out about their own missing loved ones. Families demanded investigations or began their own searches. Some banded together to form a collective called “The Other Disappeared of Iguala.” Their efforts have led to the exhumation of 168 bodies. READ MORE:

Forced Disappearance, an Ongoing Crime

As human rights lawyers, we generally don’t rank the crimes we document. But after interviewing the families of countless victims over the years, I’m convinced there’s no crime more cruel than the “disappearance” of a human being.
In 2003, during one of my first research trips to Mexico, I interviewed women in Guerrero state who had lost family members during the country’s “dirty war” in the early 1970s. Their missing loved ones were presumed to be among the hundreds of people the military executed and tossed from planes into the sea. But the families weren’t sure—and this uncertainty was why they wept with anguish while recounting their loss, as if it had occurred just days before rather than decades.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto (R) gestures during an event for the National Flag Day in Iguala, Guerrero State, Mexico on February 24, 2016. Iguala was where 43 students from a rural teachers school disappeared after they were attacked by local police on September 26, 2014.   © ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
For many, perhaps most, relatives of the disappeared, the loss of the loved one continues to feel recent, even when logic tells them that the person is most likely dead. So long as there’s uncertainty, there will be hope. So long as there’s hope, they remain trapped in a torturous limbo, unable to mourn or move on with their lives. For parents in particular, abandoning hope feels like a betrayal, like they are killing their own child.
When we presented our report on the “dirty war” cases to President Vicente Fox during a private meeting in Los Pinos in 2003, we gave two reasons why Mexico needed to investigate and prosecute these atrocities. One was the government’s obligation to these families. The second was to prevent the repetition of these crimes. Justice for past abuses can be the most effect deterrent against future ones, we told him. We did not stress this second argument, however. After all, at the time, none of us thought the problem of disappearances would be returning to Mexico. READ MORE:

Torture and Historical Truth


In March 2015, two years into Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency, the UN human rights expert Juan Méndez reported that torture was “generalized” in Mexico. The government responded by attacking Méndez. The then-foreign minister, José Antonio Meade, called him “irresponsible and unethical” for publishing findings “he could not back up.” What made this ad hominem attack so remarkable was that the UN expert’s findings—while deeply troubling—were in fact so very unremarkable. Few Mexicans would have been surprised by his conclusion regarding the prevalence of torture in their country.

Attorney's General office's special agents embark into an armoured car some of the 27 municipal policemen involved in an attack against students in Iguala and presented to the press in Mexico City on October 17, 2014.  © 2014 YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

The government sought to justify its attack on Méndez by claiming that his report cited only 14 specific cases of alleged torture. It’s possible that adding more concrete cases to complement the quantitative data and other information already included in the report could have made the findings even more convincing—if, indeed, anyone actually needed convincing. But, as the Peña Nieto administration knew perfectly well, there was ample evidence to back the UN expert’s conclusion.

In 2011, a year before Peña Nieto took office, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a comprehensive report on abuses by Mexican security forces that received extensive media coverage, including on the front pages of the country’s leading papers. We documented the systematic use of torture in more than 170 cases. Tactics varied: there were beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, death threats, sexual assault. So did the torturers: they were federal, state, and municipal police; soldiers and sailors; federal and state prosecutors. READ MORE:

Violence and Opacity


The most remarkable—and remarked upon—fact about Mexico’s “drug war” is the staggering number of homicides in the country. Indeed, according to official figures, more than 240,000 people have been killed since this “war” began in 2006. 

A policeman watches a covered body at a suspected drug-related execution on March 2, 2012 in Acapulco, Mexico.  © 2012 John Moore/Getty Images

Less frequently remarked upon—but also staggering—is how little is known about these killings. More than a decade after President Felipe Calderón began this ill-fated “war,” basic questions remain unresolved for the vast majority of the cases: Who committed them? Under what circumstances? Why?   

Through the first five years of his presidency, Calderón offered a simple answer: 90 percent of the killings related to the “drug war” were criminals killing each other. He repeated this claim as the number of organized crime-related homicides grew to a cumulative 34,000 by 2011. A Human Rights Watch delegation met with him that year in Los Pinos to present a report about systematic abuses committed by police and armed forces during his presidency. Among our findings: he had no credible basis for his 90 percent claim. READ MORE:

The Militarization of Public Security

One of the most vexing questions Andrés Manuel López Obrador will face as president of Mexico is what to do about the country’s armed forces. For more than a decade, they have engaged in a “drug war,” with disastrous results for human rights and public security, and a corrosive impact on the rule of law. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the military is operating throughout much of Mexico with little or no effective control by civilian authorities. The Interior Security Law passed last year, if implemented in its current form, will only make matters worse.
A military convoy protects the vehicle of the Forensic Service which allegedly carries the remains of Ignacio 'Nacho' Coronel in Guadalajara on July 30, 2010.  © 2010 Javier Hoyos/AFP/Getty Images
President Enrique Peña Nieto inherited this catastrophe from his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who within weeks of taking office in 2006 deployed Mexican troops en masse to confront organized crime in several parts of the country. The deployments were initially presented as temporary to support civilian police forces that found themselves outgunned by powerful and ruthless criminal organizations. But by the end of the Calderón’s presidency, they had become permanent in many places, with the armed forces effectively substituting for—rather than merely supporting—the police.
The legal basis for Calderón’s policy was dubious. Article 129 of the Constitution establishes that “in times of peace, no military authority will perform functions other than those that are strictly related to military discipline.” READ MORE: